The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Each year librarians around the metro take part in the Annual Librarian's Read Challenge during January and February. It’s a reading competition to encourage librarians to read and become more familiar with children’s and teen books.
As a youth librarian, I've usually given myself a page count goal. This year my goal was to read more of the Little House on the Prairie series. I started with Little House on Prairie and have progressed through the series quicker than I expected, hoping to meet my goal and finish the series soon.
I grew up when the Little House on the Prairie show was on TV. And like every little girl my age, I wanted to be Laura Ingalls. I wasn't a kid who would read a book that a TV show or movie was based on because it was easier just to watch the show or movie. I didn't realize what I was missing. The Little House on the Prairie books aren't just for kids. Reading these books as an adult, I’m able to appreciate the books for qualities that I wouldn't have cared about as a kid, such as Laura’s growth into a young woman and her relationship to her family.
As we were preparing for the blizzard a few weeks ago, the next book on my list was The Long Winter. It seemed rather appropriate considering how this winter has been — cold and long.
When I started, I figured the cover of the book couldn't be so deceiving. Laura and Carrie seem to be having a grand time in the snow. Illustrator Garth Williams and the publisher obviously didn't want to give a sense of how hard the long winter of 1880-1881 really was for the Ingalls family and the citizens of De Smet in the Dakota Territory.
The Long Winter is the sixth book in the series and picks up where By the Shores of Silver Lake leaves off. Laura and her family have moved from Minnesota to the Dakota Territory to claim their land for homesteading. Pa has only built a small one-room claim shanty on their land.
One September day, Pa and Laura are out cutting hay for their livestock to get them through the winter. Pa comments, “[t]he colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses. I never saw a heavier-built muskrats’ house than that one.”
An early October blizzard strands the family in the house for days and remarkably, the cattle survived the storm, but the blizzard came on so fast that they were frozen to the ground where they had been eating. The family thinks it was a freak storm and go about their business after a warm-up. Later, Pa is in town running errands, an Indian comes into the store warning of "heap big snow, big wind" for seven months.
Realizing that they simply can’t stay in the claim shanty for the winter, the Ingalls family moves into Pa’s office space. It’s not extravagant but it’s homey and better protection than the shanty. When Laura and Carrie start school they don’t stay long due to the blizzard. Getting home is scary and dangerous for the children and teacher.
After that, the blizzards seem to roll in from the northwest with a grey foreboding cloud one right after another. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s descriptions of the blizzard are masterful in conveying the sense of fear and dread that set in.
At first the family tries to make the best of their time inside, working on sewing and knitting by the stove as Pa plays his fiddle. When the trains can’t get through with supplies for the settlers, desperation starts to set in as the winter worsens. As a result they are in the house for days on end with only one day between blizzards.
Wood and kerosene become scarce and they begin to run out of food. The entire town is struggling through the winter. Almanzo Wilder and another young man in town risk their lives to find wheat for the town. This is ultimately a story of survival for kids that will make them appreciate small things like heat and electricity. I couldn't help but feel cold almost the entire time I was reading this book. It was the perfect book for the season.
As we were digging out from the blizzard in early February, I was so appreciative of the modern conveniences that get us through the Kansas City winters, such as central heat and radiators, insulation and weather forecasting computer models. We have bad winters but we now have weather forecasting computer models than can help meteorologists predict where and when a storm will hit a specific area. But after finishing The Long Winter, I can’t complain about the weather any longer. It’s been cold—bitter cold at times—and the snow has kept us inside, but we can stock up on food before the storm hits and we can prepare to our best abilities.
Will this winter end? Yes, there are signs that spring is coming and hopefully the muskrats’ houses weren't built with walls too thick or we could be in for more blizzards before the thawing days of spring. The groundhog may have some competition in the future if he’s not careful.
About the Author
Erica Voell is the Youth Collection Development Librarian at the Kansas City Public Library. She enjoys gardening, sewing, knitting, seeking out gluten-free vegetarian cuisine around the city - and yes, being a good librarian, she is owned by a cat.