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>Weekly Geeks #3: Childhood Reads — The Long Winter – Laura Ingalls Wilder

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This week, our theme is discussing favorite childhood books. I’ve discussed several of my favorites in this blog, but I haven’t talked much about the “Little House” series, which I still love without reservation. A couple of years ago, for “Merry Birthday”, Mr. Bybee gave me a complete set with Garth Williams’ illustrations in color, and I have them proudly displayed on the shelf over my desk at Dorm Sweet Dorm.

My overwhelming favorite in the series is The Long Winter. It’s the best one, for a couple of different reasons. The cheerful cover picture of young teenaged Laura and her younger sister, Carrie romping in the pretty white snow with their school friends belies the story within — a gritty tale full of drama and tension of a whole town nearly starving to death during a cruel winter (1880-81) in Dakota Territory that went on for more than half a year.
This seems to be the only book in the series in which not everything is seen from Laura’s viewpoint. Usually, if something happens outside of Laura’s sight or hearing, Pa comes back to Ma and the girls and relates the information to them. Although switching viewpoints is a departure, Wilder (and Rose Wilder Lane, possibly?) made a wise decision, since Pa is the only one who leaves the house for most of The Long Winter. This also signals to the reader that things are deadly serious and mirrors the tension the characters are feeling.
A scene in which angry, frightened and hungry townspeople go up against an opportunistic merchant who has decided to raise prices is chillingly effective, as is the reality check Pa gives the merchant: He’s free to raise prices if he wishes, but the long winter can’t last forever, and when it’s over, people will remember those who were helpful as well as those who made a miserable situation even more difficult. That scene would’ve been sadly diluted if the reader had gotten it secondhand with Laura.
In addition, the harrowing trek made by Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland to get supplies and food for a desperate town wouldn’t be as dramatic as a story repeated to other characters. No, the reader’s place is out there with Cap and Almanzo, nearly blinded by the blizzard, trying to find the farm where they can get the supplies, trying to keep the horses from being smothered by their own freezing breath, their feet painfully numb and their eyelids cracked and bleeding from the force of the cold, driving snow.
Things are just as dramatic back home in the Ingalls household. Ma and Pa are experts at knowing how to “contrive” to get through hard times, but this winter is testing their powers to the limit. The coal and wood ran out months ago, so Laura and Pa spend most of their waking hours twisting hay (originally meant to feed the livestock) into little bundles to be burned in the stove for heating and cooking. Ma comes up with several creative ways to counteract the dwindling food supply, but as the winter drags on, there’s only so much she can do with the achingly few provisions they have left. When she’s not twisting hay, Laura spends her days grinding wheat through a coffee mill so that Ma can bake up a coarse brown bread that they eat for each meal.
Several chapters have a monotonous and dulling repetition to them, and the reader can feel what it must have been like to endure the freezing cold darkness day after day. When Laura feels “never fully awake”, she’s experiencing one of the classic symptoms of starvation.
If you choose to read only one book in the “Little House” series, read The Long Winter.
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