When I was about nine, a friend of the family gave me my first Little House book. I was immediately captivated by the stories within and read them over and over through the years. The copy I had contained wonderful illustrations to accompany the story by Garth Williams. Eventually I was given all of the books in the series, plus a few other collections of Laura’s writings. I gave my set to my oldest daughter and it soon became scattered in their room. I purchased a second set for my now nine-year-old.
About a year ago I wanted to read the books again for myself. Unfortunately my daughters could no longer assemble a complete set between them. I wanted a set of books for ME now that would be hand-off for the rest of the family. When we traveled to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri I saw exactly what I wanted.
The Long Winter tells the story of the Ingalls family and the town of DeSmet during a the first winter this town was on the Dakota prairie – 1880-1881. That winter, blizzard after blizzard descended on the town, with only a day or two between each one. It picks up in the fall following the events in Wilder’s previous novel, By The Shores of Silver Lake.
With no son in the family to help him cut and stack the hay needed for the winter, Pa enlists Laura’s help with Ma’s begrudging consent. Haying is not something considered “ladylike” but the family has no choice. The first sign that a bad winter is on the way comes when Laura spots a beaver house nearby and Pa sees just how thickly they have built the walls.
One day when Laura and her sister Carrie venture into DeSmet to purchase a replacement for a blade in the cutter, they get lost on the way back and Laura has her first meeting with the man who will become her husband, Almanzo Wilder, where he is cutting hay with his brother, Royal.
An encounter with an Indian one day when Pa is in town is enough to spook him into moving his family from the homestead into the building in town which he built at the end of By The Shores of Silver Lake. The Indian warned the townsfolk that it would be a harsh winter, and the Wilder brothers also move into their store in town.
Laura tells much of the story of The Long Winter from the perspective of the Ingalls family, but she also occasionally jumps to the perspective of Almanzo Wilder. It breaks up the story nicely in a lot of ways as this different perspective breathes some new life into the story. The Ingalls’ have always been a family that struggled financially but kept their spirits up. The Wilders are two bachelors who have enough in money and supplies to survive the winter on their own. Yet Almanzo’s conscience won’t allow him to let those less fortunate go without or even starve…
The story is one hard to imagine. Whenever there’s any sort of decent snowfall predicted for our area even in this day and age there’s often a run on the supermarkets. Imagine a time when for months upon months the trains cannot get through and the stores run out of supplies. The school has been shut down, all of the coal is gone from the lumberyard. The Ingalls’ are twisting and burning the hay Laura and Pa cut the previous fall for heat, and yet there is still no end in sight. It sort of puts into perspective the whining I hear from my kids if the electricity is out for more than a couple of hours.
I found The Long Winter to be a troubling book to read with my kids in some ways. It’s frightening in a way to think about a whole town being abandoned by the railroads to starve, and that’s pretty much what happened. I had to reassure my nine year-old several times the first time we read it that they survived – after all, this book was written. At the same time, it taught valuable lessons about sticking together, not just within the Ingalls family but as a community. Almanzo could have abandoned any sense of responsibility for those beginning to starve around him, but instead he rises to the occasion and possibly saves all of them. When a store-owner attempts to price-gouge in the face of high-demand and dwindling supply, the town collectively lets him know that he will change his mind if he wants to continue to do business with them after the winter is over.
I spent several weeks reading The Long Winter at night before bed with my daughters the first time we read it through together. Laura’s descriptions of the setting and events is excellent, and comes with years of practice being the “eyes” for her blind sister, Mary. I don’t find her descriptions to be overwritten and bogged down, but fascinating. In a book about snowstorm after snowstorm, it could easily have become tedious, but she manages to craft different angles into the events of each chapter and creates a pacing that gripped all of us to find out how long the terrible storms would last and who would be alive at the end. It also sparks discussion about the differences between the current time and life back then, some questions about which I don’t have the answers to.
My new edition of The Long Winter is a paperback bound book with the same beautiful illustrations by Garth Williams that I grew up with. The difference is that they are now in color, rather than the pen-and-ink style drawings I first saw all those years ago. It’s interesting to see how the color can be used to set a tone in the drawings. For instance, in the picture of Laura first attending school in DeSmet where she sees her friend, Cap Garland, the sky behind him is a light blue, giving a more light-hearted feel to the evens surrounding that drawing. In another drawing where Pa and some other men are riding a hand-car down the railroad tracks to clear them of snow, the sky is a darker blue, creating a more ominous tone. The color also adds a dimension to drawings such as Royal helping Almanzo defrost his feet after his treacherous journey as the shadows cast by the lantern-light are more evident.
In any of the earlier books, I noticed an increase in the font size with the new editions. That doesn’t seem to be the case with this edition of The Long Winter. When I read the story with my girls, the chapters were the perfect size to read one each night at bedtime.
If you’ve never read the books, I definitely feel they are worth it for adults as well. I am enjoying reading them again just by myself for the first time in years. If you have children, it’s a wonderful experience which will spark lots of conversation and questions about life so many years ago.
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