Saturday, May 10, 2008

Weekly Geeks #3: Childhood Reads -- The Long Winter - Laura Ingalls Wilder

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.


Anonymous said...

Reading your description of this book made me remember how much I loved it and the series. From the Long Winter, I also remember Ma ironing the bed sheets before the girls went to bed.

Anonymous said...

I've never read this one and I really want to now. I've read several other books in the series but not the complete series.

raidergirl3 said...

well done! It is the best book, for all the reasons you said. And when Pa goes to Almanzo's and takes some grain that was hidden? so dramitic.
thanks for the trip down memory lane.

raych said...

This one was always the hardest for me to read when I was little, just because it was full of so many struggles. Also, I was totally in love with Almanzo and Cap. How can you NOT be after this?

Gentle Reader said...

Oh my goodness, I'd forgotten entirely about The Long Winter, but I now remember liking it so much as a kid. I am slowly re-acquiring the Little House series for when my daughter is old enough for them :)

Tara said...

These were my favorite books growing up. I owned the boxed set in yellow that you show here and have purchased many of the full-color editions to share with my daughter. I haven't read them in years, but my mother in law reads this one every winter. We visited the Ingalls homestead and other sites a few years ago in De Smet, SD. You can practice grinding wheat with a coffee mill and making those hay bundles. Not fun. Have you ever been there?

Les said...

Oh, how I loved this series! Have you ever read O.E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth? I've always considered it a "grown-ups" version of the Little House books.

John Mutford said...

Way back when I was in grade four, my class was mostly made up of males. And our teacher somehow got us all interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder. I forget which one she introduced us to, but I remember checking out all the rest from the library and enjoying them equally.

Bookfool said...

Ohhh, I remember that one! It's been so long since I've read those books that I really didn't think I'd remember a thing, but your description jogged the memory. Thanks for that!

darkorpheus said...

You know what's odd? I don't call any childhood reading that made such an impression on me. It must be wonderful to have a series that you loved way back from your early years.

Susan said...

Great post, Susan! I love how you describe the long winter - I forgot all the suffering they went through - it's been years since I read it. I used to have the whole series and read them all over and over. You're right, The Long Winter is the most memorable - I think we see the pioneer life most clearly in that one, the struggle to survive, although Little Cabin in the Big Woods is also a favourite. I think too, after our winter this year, that if it was 100 years ago, it would have been very hard, like Laura Ingalls Wilder had, we - norhern USA and us up here in Eastern Canada - had so much snow for so long.

Jane said...

I love The Long Winter too. It is a powerful tale of survival and community pulling together to help one another.
Great choice!

Bybee said...

Ironing the sheets...I'd forgotten that. She was a good Ma, wasn't she?

You're in for a treat.

Oh yeah, and Almanzo and Royal notice how thin Pa has gotten.

I knew Laura had to end up with one or the other of these hometown heroes.

Gentle Reader,
I even pushed The Long Winter at my husband...don't think he read it, but I couldn't help's so good.

I want to visit all the "Little Houses" I've only been to the ones in Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo lived most of their adult life.

I think I read Giants In The Earth, but not 100% sure. If I see it, I'll check it out (again?)

There's nothing too femmy about Laura, so I can see how young males could relate to her.

Bybee said...

Oh, you're more than welcome!

Dark Orpheus,
I'm really lucky that I had a mom that encouraged me to read...not for the usual reasons, but because kids made her alternately nervous and bored and she wanted us out of her hair but also where she could keep an eye on us...anyway, my early reading really sticks in my mind.

I have been wondering if Canadians read The Long Winter and think: "Meh. Sissies."

The overall series is powerful, but The Long Winter really packs a punch since Wilder pans out a little to include the townspeople.