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The Long Winter
di Laura Ingalls Wilder
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Book 6 in the Little House series is a horrifically grim story of six months of the family surviving a terrible winter. Constant blizzards, temperatures of minus forty*. The trains stop running as the cuttings fill with snow, and so they all know there is not enough food or coal to survive the winter, and they slowly eke out what they have. It is a book of literally months of twisting hay into ropes to burn it, and grinding grain painfully slowly by hand in a coffee mill. Everyone is slowly starving to death, and their life has shrunk to a tiny circle around the stove, and they are tired and depressed. We even see Ma and Pa snap at each other for once.
But there are glimmers of hope in it all. Pa finds Almanzo's hidden grain and saves them from starving. Almanzo makes a heroic ride through the blizzards with Cap to get more grain for the town. They do what they can to keep their spirits up, reciting famous speeches and singing hymns. And somehow they hold on until April and the trains come through again.
It is odd reading it as an adult. We know Laura and Almanzo are going to end up together, but I hadn't realised until this one how attractive actually having food - pancakes and salt pork! - can be in a man when all you have is raw wheat. And Almanzo definitely saves the day by going out through the blizzard to the settler and buying his grain for the town - but the settler is hording his grain for exactly the same reason Almanzo is, and Almanzo is happy to take the risk and the heroics, but not happy to just feed the whole town from his future and his best seed grain.
I can't not comment on the cover of this book. It is ridiculous. It feels like someone was told 'there is a little house book called the Long Winter, can you draw a cover?' and never actually read the book. Smiling children with ruddy cheeks throw snowballs at each other and sledge down a hill. This is a winter that leaves them gaunt and pinched and unable to think, a winter where even in the first blizzard they are nearly all frozen to death just trying to walk home from school. Snowballs and scarfs it is not.
* I tried to translate that from fahrenheit to celsius, to get a feel for how terrible it was, but actually, it's the cross over point, it's minus forty in both scales. Petrifying.
I had an accident at Christmas and ended in the hospital for a week. I was pretty much shut in for a couple of weeks after I was moved home. Then, we had a blizzard, and I continued to be confined to the house. So, I started thinking about being confined to a house for endless hours in the winter, with snow outside. That made me think about this book for some reason. I'd read it back in about 5th grade, but decided to revisit it.
I wasn't long into the book when I realized a personal connection to the book. We're in South Dakota (then Dakota Territory) in 1880. Well, my grandmother was living in Dakota Territory in 1880. In the summer of 1881, my great grandparents decided they'd had enough of the damn snow and headed south, hoping to make it to Texas. They didn't make it that far, ending up only in central Kansas. I don't know what Kansas winters were like in 1880—1900, but when I lived in Kansas in 1971—3, we had flowers in February, so no long winters by then. But then, of course, climate change had already been warming things up (although most of us didn't know about climate change in 1971—3).
Anyway, the Ingalls family, Ma and Pa, with Laura, Mary, Carrie and baby Grace, were living in De Smet, Dakota, a bit northwest from where my great grandparents were settled in Lincoln County. The snow came early and often, and dragged on until spring. So, people got shut in, the trains couldn't come to bring provisions, and essentials, like food and fuel, became scarce. So, basically, this is the story of how people coped back in the day. I wonder if any of my forebears would have had similar stories to tell, had I the sense to ask back when they were around (which they were when I was in 5th grade, but aren't any longer). Of course, even quizzing my grandmother might not have helped much. She was only 2 during the winter of 1880. FWIW, I believe Laura Ingalls was 14.
It is a detailed account about how the Ingalls family, in a small South Dakato town, survived a harsh winter in 1880. It made me appreciate my comparatively mild winter so much more. They had temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. They had only a cooking stove for source of heat. They had 2 or 3 day blizzards that went on for 7 months, with no more than 4 clear days in between the storm. When they went to bed (upstairs! Away from the downstair kitchen/dining table where the stove was!), they put out the fire in the stove and warm themselves only by their blankets. They gradually ran out of coal and flour, and twisted hay into sticks as their fuel source and used a coffee grinder the grind wheat into course wheat flour. They had to twist hay and grind wheat all day in order to produce sufficient fuel and food for that day. I couldn't stop listening to the story because I was amazed at how they managed it all. I think it's a great book to read in winter time. And it's based on a true event. Going through the Little House books again as an adult, I think this one is my favorite so far.
I think I must have read these books so many times as a child the pages turned to dust. Love Laura Ingalls Wilder and her stories of the American prairie.
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Little House novels, chronological order (book 21)
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After an October blizzard, Laura's family moves from the claim shanty into town for the winter, a winter that an Indian has predicted will be seven months of bad weather.
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Sistema Decimale Melvil (DDC)813.52 — Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1900-1944
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