The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
From Miss Beth at Main
In 1974, Little House on the Prairie made its television debut. I eagerly waited for each new episode and watched Laura Ingalls and her family grow and change over the years, just like in the books I read.
Except TV Laura didn’t quite match book Laura after the first few seasons. About midway, the show skipped over a large portion of Laura’s history and headed straight for her teen years with school teaching, Almanzo Wilder’s courtship and their eventual marriage taking center stage. Like the TV series, I skipped over the “boring” books in the middle and did not realize the diamond in the rough I’d ignored until, feeling sentimental a few years back, I decided to reread the Little House books… and discovered the most powerful story in the entire series, The Long Winter.
The summary on the jacket hits the high points: The Ingalls family settles near DeSmet, South Dakota just before the Hard Winter of 1880-81. The town is soon besieged by blizzards, the trains are stuck, food supplies are running out and Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland make a dash during a weather break to acquire sixty bushels of wheat to ensure the town’s survival. Dramatic? Surely, but the summary barely scratches the surface.
What makes this story stand out is tension, constant and insidious. From the very beginning, when the elderly Native American warns the townsfolk that a bad winter is coming, the feeling of dread and anxiety ratchets up and stays high until, three hundred pages later, winter is finally over. The first blizzard hits in October while the family is still living in the paper-thin claim shanty a mile or so from town. They move to Pa’s store as soon as the weather breaks, then a second blizzard strikes when Laura and Carrie are at school. The teacher and students decide to make a break for it, and if not for Laura bumping into the wall of a building, the whole school population would have wandered into the prairie and likely died.
From there things rapidly go downhill: the trains, on which much depends including delivery of foodstuffs, are stranded many miles away—every time the track is cleared another blizzard strikes and fills in the cut, making forward progress all but impossible. In town, not enough coal or wood or food has been stockpiled for winter and by January, supplies are running perilously low. Out of ready fuel, Laura helps Pa make “sticks” out of tightly twisted hay to burn, working until her hands are raw plus helping Ma with all the other necessary chores. By February, knowing now there will be no trains until spring, the family is in dire straits and Pa, weakened and desperate, gets a bucket of wheat seed from the Wilder boys to feed his family.
Almanzo realizes that his neighbors are facing certain starvation and he hatches a plot with Cap Garland to seek out a storage of wheat being held on a claim about twelve miles south of town. They set out between blizzards, not knowing where the homestead is or if the stories of the wheat stores are even true. But they find the place, purchase as much wheat as they can carry and barely make it back to DeSmet before the next storm strikes. We’ll never know for certain as Laura glossed over the worst of it, but it is likely more than one settler in DeSmet would have died from starvation had the men not taken the risk.
In our modern world we take for granted the basics like light, heat, food and clothing. In the American West of 1880, there was no electricity or central heat. Conveniences like refrigeration, microwaves or Amazon Prime didn’t exist. Manufactured goods came by rail and could take weeks or months to arrive; if you needed it now you’d have to make it yourself or do without. The pioneers were resourceful, smart and practical. They understood that comfort was a luxury and that they had to plan far ahead for their best chance at survival. Even when they thought all their bases were covered their world was still unpredictable.
The Long Winter is a story of a family struggling to survive one of the hardest winters in South Dakota history to that point. It is a slice of time-only seven or so months of Laura’s life but a time that she did not enjoy revisiting when she wrote the book many years later. It is also, most importantly, a chronicle of American grit and determination against overwhelming odds, of staring down starvation and soldiering on day after miserable day while hanging on to the hope that someday, spring will come.« Back to Blog
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