Chloe’s Book Club: The Long Winter

The Long Winter has always been one of my favorite books in the Little House series. A number of readers have mentioned that they loved it too.

LngWtr

Weather dominates the book from the first chapter, when—on a hot day—Pa predicts a hard winter, based on the thickness of muskrat houses. The author made additional use of foreshadowing when she describes a wonderful October dinner in their claim shanty:

That was such a happy supper that Laura wanted it never to end. When she was in bed with Mary and Carrie, she stayed awake to keep on being happy. She was so sleepily comfortable and cosy.

They wake to a blizzard. The shanty isn’t an ideal place to wait out a storm, but the family has food and fuel–and Pa keeps everyone’s spirits up by playing the fiddle. No problem.

Uneasy about the weather, Pa moves the family into town for the winter. The blizzards keep coming, and the supply train can’t get through. Valiant and increasingly desperate attempts are made to clear the tracks—all without success.

Train_stuck_in_snow

A train stuck in snow in southern Minnesota, March 29, 1881. Photograph by Elmer and Tenney. (Wikipedia; Minnesota HS)

As always, the descriptions are vivid:

All day and all night, the house trembled, the winds roared and screamed, the snow scoured against the walls and over the roof where the frosty nails came through.  

Some of the Little House books are episodic. You could pluck a single chapter out of a volume and the book would still read just fine. I think one of the reasons The Long Winter is so gripping is that the tension and dread build from Chapter 1.

Later, we also learn of the psychological toll of enduring endless blizzards:

Even after Laura was warm she lay awake listening to the wind’s wild tune and thinking of each little house, in town, alone in the whirling snow…  And the little town was alone on the wide prairie. Town and prairie were lost in the wild storm which was neither earth nor sky, nothing but fierce winds and a blank whiteness.  …No light and no cry could reach through a storm that had wild voices and an unnatural light of its own.

The blankets were warm and Laura was no longer cold but she shivered.

Another reason the book is so compelling is that the outcome the Ingalls family and their neighbors are trying to avoid is intense:  death by starvation. We watch food and coal supplies dwindle. Surely a train must come before the last bread was gone, Laura thinks, but over and over hopes are dashed.

When the coal runs out, Pa and Laura twist hay into sticks, which burn as quickly as kindling. It was difficult work:  Their hands were red and swollen, the skin was cold, and covered with cuts made by the sharp slough hay.

DSCF9494

A hay twist on display in a restaurant in De Smet.

When Laura asks Pa to play the fiddle, he tries…and he can’t.

“My fingers are too stiff and thick from being out in the cold so much, I can’t play,” Pa spoke as if he were ashamed.  He laid the fiddle in its box.

Pa’s fiddle has seen the family through many difficult moments. The scene is one of the low points in the entire series.

TheLongWinter

In this early cover, Pa plays the fiddle as the family huddles around the stove.

The Long Winter is not without its high moments. Throughout, the author balanced hardship and despair with family togetherness and perseverance. Another day, knowing Pa can’t play, Laura sings to cheer him up. The Christmas chapter is (as always) uplifting, even though the train hasn’t come.

And when rumors pass of a farmer who might have wheat to sell, Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland risk their lives to go get it. They almost get caught in a blizzard on the open prairie…but they make it back to town: “Cap and I figure we’ll do what we set out to do,” Almanzo said. This book provides our first look at Almanzo the man. He’s a heroic, capable hero, and it’s rewarding to see that the boy in Farmer Boy turned out so well.

By spring the family has nothing to eat but coarse bread, made by grinding wheat in the coffee mill. The family is suffering from malnutrition, cold, and probably depression:  (Laura) did not ever feel awake. She felt beaten by the cold and the storms. She knew she was dull and stupid but she could not wake up. Both Ma and Pa, uncharacteristically, have moments of despair.

The cover art for this recent edition is one of the few that depicts challenge instead of something more fun or cozy.

The cover art for this recent edition is one of the few that depicts challenge instead of something more fun or cozy.

When the train finally comes, the relief for readers is all the greater because the situation had been so dire. The book ends on a joyous note.

Is The Long Winter one of your favorites too?  What did you like, or not?

***

Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

I had hoped to discuss each book in the series, but I need to move on to other topics, and so am out of time (at least for now). Many thanks to everyone who read along and shared their thoughts.  It’s been thought-provoking–and fun.

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26 Responses to “Chloe’s Book Club: The Long Winter”

  1. Judy Nedry Says:

    This was an incredible book. It was hard to read because everyone was so desperate and the days and the blizzards just went on and on. A very memorable contribution to American literature.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Judy, thanks for stopping by. I think this demonstrates the power of historical fiction, don’t you? Experiencing that winter vicariously with the Ingalls family is pretty powerful.

  2. caroleestbydagg Says:

    Some of the other Little House books run together in my memories of having read them nearly 65 years ago, but the Long Winter stands apart as my favorite book in the series too!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Carole, that’s true for me as well! I took a long break between reading the series as a child and reading them for the first time as an adult, but some of those scenes from TLW were still vivid.

  3. caroleestbydagg Says:

    PS – for a more recent book with some of the feel of The Long Winter, see Caroline Starr Rose’s MAY B, about a young girl stranded alone during a blizzard.

  4. Dianne Bahn Says:

    The Long Winter isn’t my favorite Little House book but the story line is certainly thought provoking. The description of the hardships endured by the Ingalls family and indeed, the entire town of DeSmet, shows the courage and fortitude of the pioneers. They did what they had to do to stay alive. If not for Cap and Almanzo’s bravery and determination to find the man who had the wheat, many of the town would have starved. The story certainly gives us great insight into the people and the times. When I have read this book and I have read it many times, I have thought that those of us living today would find such a hardship very difficult to endure. No doubt in today’s times, such lengthy and powerful storms would knock out the electricity. That is a mainstay of our lives now. At least the Ingalls family had the hay bundles and a method to provide some light and some heat and they could cook. It may not have been a lot but it helped them to survive and endure.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Dianne, thanks for sharing. I agree, if any of the books provides insights into the hardships inherent in pioneer life, this one truly does. Ma comes through in TLW as a true pioneer in the sense that she displays ingenuity in terms of food, the little lamp, etc. And I’m sure you’re right; most of us today would be completely overwhelmed by such a winter.

  5. Suzi Phillips Says:

    Of all the Little House books, I think this one made the biggest impression on me. The Long Winter obviously left lasting scars on Laura Ingalls Wilder- while I understand the books themselves are fiction, the tension, drama, and emotional depth of the story were as real and honest as it gets.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Suzi, I suspect that most of us who grew up in relative ease were affected by TLW, especially if we were young children the first time we read the story. And you make a good point about the tension, drama, and emotional depth. Pretty powerful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Sean Says:

    Flat out my favorite of the series. It was actually one of the seeds for my last book, “After Everyone Died.” The survival story, the town handing together, yet people still see handing on their own. The idea that being in town didn’t actually make you safer–thematically, I think it is her strongest work.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Sean, how fascinating to hear that your book–which on the surface might seem completely different–was seeded in part by TLW. And you raise an excellent point, that being in town didn’t make you safer. An isolated farm family would likely have put more food by than those who believed the trains would run, and a quick walk to the store would suffice.

  7. swalks Says:

    I’m 54, but I still have the complete paperback set I received as a Christmas gift when I was about 11. I’ve read each book many times, but The Long Winter is my favorite. The writing is the most sophisticated out of all the other books – stark, spare, yet hauntingly beautiful, just like a blizzard. The Long Winter gave birth to my fascination with how weather influences history, and I have many non-fiction books on weather events. The Long Winter is also the book I referred to the most in my classroom. I always felt it would make an excellent feature length movie.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I love your beautiful simile comparing the writing to a blizzard! And how interesting that the book sparked a lifelong interest in weather. I credit the series with sparking my own love of history and historical fiction. And–I agree, TLW would make a wonderful movie… In addition to the trip to buy wheat, the scene where Laura is trying to get Carrie home from school safely, and believes the guide is going the wrong way, is compelling.

  8. Catherine Strasser Says:

    I think this book marks not just a new and more adult awareness by Laura as narrator, but it addresses the actual hardships and uncertainties that the early settlers faced. As a child, this is the first book that brought home to me the true difficulties of the early settlers faced, and particularly the struggles of the Ingalls. I found it a gripping story and cheered Cap and Garland on in their quest to find the wheat and save the town.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Catherine, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I imagine it would have been difficult to get through that winter without gaining some maturity. And you make a good point–within the series, TLW is a counterbalance for the abundance we see in Little House In The Big Woods.

  9. Elizabeth J Says:

    What I remember most about this book are all the pancakes that Almanzo and Royal ate, and I never understood why Pa didn’t bring pancakes back for everyone else!

    We went to the National Archives this spring, and I have to admit, I was most excited about seeing Pa’s land grant!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Elizabeth, I’m with you on both counts. As a child, I was shocked that Pa ate pancakes without taking any home. As an adult, understanding that he was doing heavy chores and not sitting by the stove all day, I looked at the situation differently. And I also had the chance to see the Ingalls document at the National Archives, about a year ago. It was more cool than I expected it to be. Something about seeing the real thing is very powerful, isn’t it?

  10. Sheila Fuesting Says:

    The Long Winter has always been my favorite, and I have given away several copies. Do you know the publisher of the latest edition showing the more serious drawing of the blizzard on the cover?
    Thanks,
    Sheila

  11. Sheila Fuesting Says:

    Thanks, Kathleen.

  12. Diana Belchase Says:

    Reblogged this on Book Smart TV and commented:
    Another Laura Ingalls Wilder report by author Kathleen Ernst. I so appreciate Kathleen reminding me jhow great these books are — both in a literary sense and as history, connoting the hardships of those who came before us, to whom we will always be grateful.

  13. Sheila Fuesting Says:

    Thanks, Kathleen, I found this particular edition on abebooks and ordered it.

  14. Lois Scorgie Says:

    I again applaud the stamina of the Ingalls and the support they gave to each other. When Pa couldn’t play his fiddle, Laura sang. I was left at the end of the book wondering why Almonzo hid his wheat yet risked his life to get another man’s wheat. What a relief when spring came!

  15. Jill Nisbet Says:

    Dear Kathleen,
    Thanks so much for doing this book club, your’ wonderful photos and insightful commentary. I find a!l the readers input very interesting and really hope wecan finish someday.

    For me the Long Winter was a!l about hardship. Endless snow and co!d with a very real possibility of freezing or starving to death! Then there were the disappointments: game not caught, trains not running. I did notice Ma’s uncharacteristic out burst!

    Of course the heroes were Cap Garland and Almanzo. As a child I don’t think i fully made the connection that he was both the boy in Farmer Boy as well as Laura’s future husband.

    Imagine twisting hay until you’re fingers blead and grinding seed wheat nearly around the clock! By the time the train finally arrived in spring, I was so niumb from that !ong winter it was almost anti climatic for me.Laura originally wanted to call the book The Hard Winter. I think that says it all.

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