Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This is perhaps the least fictional of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, her family's story of the winter of 1880-1881, which really did consist of blizzard after blizzard and which really did strand the town of DeSmet, South Dakota to fend for itself for seven months when the trains couldn't make it through the cuts that filled with snow. Two men from town braved the elements to find a claim on the prairie about 12 miles from town (in the book it's 20) where a farmer is rumored to have some seed wheat on hand, and bring it back for the town to eat for the rest of the winter - a trip that truly risked their lives, but was ultimately successful. The Ingalls family ground the wheat for their daily bread with a coffee grinder, what became a constant and tedious chore. There being no more fuel in town, they twisted hay into sticks to burn. And all the while, one blizzard after another howled outside, isolating the family even within the isolated town on the prairie.

One of my favorite scenes in this book is near the beginning, before the winter sets in. Laura is out helping Pa with haying, and they walk together to look at a muskrat house. They discuss the thickness of the walls, and how it foretells a cold winter, and Laura asks how they know. Pa tells her that he's not sure, but God must tell them. When she asks why God doesn't tell people, the ensuing discussion of what free will means is one of the clearest I've ever seen.

I have read this book, if I had to guess, literally dozens of times over the years. My sister and I would read it out loud to each other, taking turns chapter by chapter, in two situations. One, when it was very hot out (we were in Maine in the late 1980s and early 90s, when air conditioning was not at all common), and two, when it was very cold out (we not only lived in Maine, but in an old farmhouse primarily heated by wood). The descriptions in the book, of how very cold everyone was, and how resilient, were real enough to cool us down on a hot summer day, or make us feel like we were lucky to have as warm a house as we had when the wind and snow blew outside. For reference, the other book we used for the same purposes was "A Little Princess" by Frances Hodgson Burnett; Sara's trials in her attic were sufficient for a summer or winter day also, and both books make you feel like your chores are probably not too bad! But I digress.

As an adult, I can do a lot more reading between the lines of The Long Winter. This was written by someone who remembered very distinctly what it was like to be hungry and cold for six whole months, and the desperate hope for the train, and what it felt like when that hope was dashed, over and over, by new blizzards.

As far as political correctness goes, there's not a lot to object to in this particular book, except for a couple of Indian references near the beginning. We hear about how "Ma hated Indians" and there is a description of Pa being at the store when an old Indian comes to warn the townspeople about the upcoming winter. The dialog in the store scene is right out of a cheap Western movie - "Heap big snow come. I tellum you." Laura was a product of her time, and I like to think she'd have dealt more reasonably with Indians if she were writing today (especially since the Indian's visit in this book is one of the few fictional elements she introduced!). But the scene is probably worth discussing. Aside from that, there's also the false wisdom of rubbing snow on cold noses and ears to prevent frostbite; historically accurate, but not recommended!

1 comment:

  1. I was just reading this myself and was really surprised to realize that in the Christmas scene, everyone has a present mentioned except for Laura! Since Laura was responsible for arranging almost everyone else's gift, it would be a real bummer if no one had managed to remember her. Perhaps she just forgot to write about it?