Posts Tagged ‘The Long Winter’

Chloe’s Book Club: The Long Winter

August 9, 2016

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Laura Land Tour: De Smet, SD – Part 2

January 28, 2016

As I mentioned in my last post about De Smet, avid Laura Ingalls Wilder fans can easily spend more than a single day in the area.

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I suggest picking up a copy of the booklet “Explore De Smet,” a walking and driving guide to many of the sites mentioned in, or relevant to, the books set in South Dakota.

Explore De Smet

It’s fun to walk the streets and discover the locations of homes and businesses Laura mentioned in her books. In addition to the guide, interpretive signs help visitors get their historical bearings.

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The signs are nicely done, with period advertisements or photos, a location summary, and a quote from the pertinent book.

You can visit the Loftus Store.  In The Long Winter, Cap Garland and Almanzo Wilder risked their lives to bring wheat back to the town’s starving residents, only to have storekeeper Loftus try to cheat his customers by asking an exorbitant price.

Loftus Store

After exploring the town, jump in your car to see sites in the area. The Big Slough, described in By The Shores of Silver Lake, is located just south of town. It’s much smaller than it was in Laura’s day, but worth a stop.

 

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I also wanted to see Silver Lake, but had a hard time finding it. Finally one of the Historic Homes guides gave me good directions. A lane into a small industrial area led to a vantage point where I could see the lake.

De Smet

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One of my favorite places in all of Laura Land is the Memorial Site, one mile southeast of De Smet.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Site De Smet

An interpretive kiosk marks the site.

In 1880 Charles Ingalls (Pa) filed a homestead claim for this land. The Memorial is in one corner of that original property.

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The tiny cottonwood trees Charles planted for his family are still there, and now enormous.  It is very special to walk among them.

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Ingalls homestead memorial

For hands-on fun (especially with kids) you can also visit “The Ingalls Homestead:  Laura’s Living Prairie” right up the hill.

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Homestead brochure

Laura married Almanzo Wilder in 1885. The site of their homestead is on private land, but a sign marks the spot.

Wilder Homestead De Smet

Wilder Homestead De Smet

Many Laura fans also visit the De Smet Cemetery, as Chloe Ellefson does in Death on the Prairie:

Chloe drove next to the De Smet Cemetery, a peaceful place on a hilltop between the town, a remnant slough, and farmland. It didn’t take long to find the graves of Ma and Pa, Mary, Carrie, and Grace. Then – “Oh.” She stopped in front of a low stone that said simply, Baby son of A.J. Wilder.

De Smet Cemetery

“Why?” she demanded softly. Why just note the father? Why was Laura’s name left off the stone? The omission was exasperating, perplexing, and terribly sad. Even sadder was the fact that Laura and Almanzo had evidently not named their son.

But…perhaps Laura named him in her heart.

If you visit, you’ll find stones for Laura’s parents and sisters nearby.

When my sister and I toured De Smet for the first time we also wanted to see where Cap Garland was buried. Again, a guide at the Historic Homes gave us great directions (to a different cemetery), and described the stone so we could find it easily.

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The guide also suggested we visit the area where Almanzo took Laura courting. We were running out of daylight—but that only made it easier to imagine the couple getting to know each other during buggy rides.

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(Photo by Barbara Ernst)

If you’d like to see more I highly recommend Discover Laura, the official blog of Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes. It features a virtual tour of De Smet, family artifacts, and site news. (Here’s a post about Cap Garland and his family.)

For more information about Death on the Prairie, including links to other tour stops, photographs, maps, and much more, please visit my website.

Next stop:  Little House On The Prairie museum in Independence, Kansas!