February 16, 2015

The Long Winter

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Fiction – Children’s
Original Copyright 1940
1971 Harper Trophy Book
Finished on January 14, 2015
Rating: 4/5 (Really liked it)

Publisher’s Blurb:

On the empty winter prairie, gray clouds to the northwest meant only one thing: a blizzard was seconds away. The first blizzard came in October. It snowed almost without stopping until April. The temperature dropped to forty below. Snow reached to rooftops. An no trains could get through with food and coal. The townspeople began to starve. The Ingalls family barely lived through that winter. And Almanzo Wilder knew he would have to risk his life to save the town.

The “Little House” books tell the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life. She was born in 1867 in the little log cabin on the edge of the Big Woods of Wisconsin, and through the years she traveled with her family by covered wagon through Kansas, Minnesota, and finally the Dakota Territory, where she met and married Almanzo Wilder.

There was deprivation and hard work. Crops were ruined by storms and grasshopper plagues. But there were also the happy times of love and laughter; sleigh rides, holiday celebrations, and socials. These eight titles now in paperback bring the Ingalls family vividly alive and capture the best of the American pioneer spirit.

The illustrations by Garth Williams are the results of 10 years of research. Mr. Williams actually followed the path of the Ingalls family during the period 1870-1889. No wonder, then, that the pictures have a special quality for the children who have loved these stories through the years.

It is currently overcast and 11 degrees outside. While we have had some unseasonably warm days this winter, we have also had some extremely cold (subzero) temps, lasting for days on end. And we’ve had quite a bit of snow, but nothing like what the Northeast has experienced. As I sit in my cozy room, sipping my hot cup of tea, I hear the furnace kick on once again and I feel especially thankful that it is 2015 and not the late 1800s! As I read The Long Winter, I was constantly reminded of how lucky we are to have heat, hot water, a refrigerator full of food, and a car to take us to the store should we need anything else. I would not have been a very good pioneer!

I first read The Long Winter in 1972, after receiving it for my 11th birthday from my best friend. I’ve been meaning to go back and re-read this entire series, but decided to skip ahead to The Long Winter after reading Bellezza’s comments about this favorite book of hers. As far as I can remember, I’ve only read the book once, maybe two times, and I was so surprised that it has a more mature feel to it than most young reader books I’ve read as an adult. The dialogue and detailed narrative doesn’t sound light or childish, and I found myself commenting to my husband about the excellent writing on more than one occasion.

On the arrival of yet another blizzard:
The cold and the dark had come again. The nails in the roof were white with frost, the windowpanes were gray. Scraping a peephole only showed the blank, whirling whiteness against the other side of the glass. The stout house quivered and shook; the wind roared and howled. Ma kept the rag rugs tightly against the bottom of the doors, and the cold came crawling in.

It was hard to be cheerful. Morning and afternoon, holding the clothesline, Pa went to the stable to feed the horses, the cow, and the heifer. He had to be sparing of the hay. He came in so cold that he could hardly get warm. Sitting before the oven, he took Grace on his knee and hugged Carrie close to him, and he told them the stories of bears and panthers that he used to tell Mary and Laura. Then in the evening he took his fiddle and played the merry tunes.
It helped some. Laura hoped that she seemed cheerful enough to encourage the others. But all the time she knew that this storm had blocked the train again. She knew that almost all the coal was gone from the pile in the lean-to. There was no more coal in town. The kerosene was low in the lamp though Ma lighted it only while they ate supper. There would be no meat until the train came. There was no butter and only a little fat-meat dripping was left to spread on bread. There was still potatoes, but no more than flour enough for one more bread baking.

When Laura had thought of all this, she thought that surely a train must come before the last bread was gone. Then she began to think about the coal, the kerosene, the little bit of dripping left, and the flour in the bottom of the flour sack. But surely, surely, the train must come.

All day and all night, the house trembled, the winds roared and screamed, the snow scoured against the walls of over the roof where the frosty nails came through. In the other houses there were people, there must be lights, but they were too far away to seem real.
On pancakes and the generosity of neighbors:
Almanzo waved that away, “What’s a little wheat between neighbors? You’re welcome to it, Mr. Ingalls. Draw up a chair and sample these pancakes before they get cold.”

But Pa insisted on paying for the wheat. After some talk about it, Almanzo charged a quarter and Pa paid it. Then he did sit down, as they urged him, and lifting the blanket cake on the untouched pile, he slipped from under it a section of the stack of hot, syrupy pancakes. Royal forked a brown slice of ham from the frying pan onto Pa’s plate and Almanzo filled his coffee cup.

“You boys certainly live in the lap of luxury,” Pa remarked. The pancakes were no ordinary buckwheat pancakes. Almanzo followed his mother’s pancake rule and the cakes were light as foam, soaked through with melted brown sugar. The ham was sugar-cured and hickory-smoked, from the Wilder farm in Minnesota. “I don’t know when I’ve eaten a tastier meal,” said Pa.
Random thoughts:

Did Pa mention this meal to his family? If this book is part of Laura’s biography, he must have or how else would she have known? And how could he enjoy such delicious food while his wife and children were practically starving to death? Of course, he was doing most of the physical labor to take care of his family and livestock, but still!

On the howl of the wind:
The constant beating of the winds against the house, the roaring, shrieking, howling of the storm, made it hard even to think. It was possible only to wait for the storm to stop. All the time, while they ground wheat, twisted hay, kept the fire burning in the stove, and huddled over it to thaw their chapped, numb hands and their itching, burning, chilblained feet, and while they chewed and swallowed the coarse bread, they were all waiting until the storm stopped.
Final Thoughts:

Reading about blizzards as the wind howled outside our bedroom window in early January, with the temperature plummeting once again, made me so thankful I wasn’t a pioneer girl! I love my creature comforts and can’t imagine living in such harsh conditions during a long winter. Running out of coal, having to burn twisted hay, eating a single piece of brown bread with some tea for an evening meal once the food has run out, the isolation, the constant noise of the wind and the fear of dying are almost impossible to imagine. Now that I’ve read The Long Winter, I’m eager to re-read O.E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. Maybe next winter, though. Right now, I’m ready for something a little more uplifting.


  1. You make me want to read this book and all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books again. It's been years and years. I think I read #1 and maybe #2 to the daughter when she was younger. I know I read all of them when I was a kid myself. I suspect that reading them as an adult would have a little different slant, especially in one like this with the cold. Brrr!!

    1. I want to re-read the entire series, too, Kay. I have no recollection of whether I read them all just once or several times. Amy had no interest in them when she was little, which was a bit of a disappointment, and I don't think Shaylyn cares about them either. I might try to read another in a few months.

  2. I can't help but wonder if a part of why I don't love this book so much is the illustrations by Garth Williams. Of course, the story is more beautifully told than I could ever do, with lessons along the way. But somehow, Garth makes her life almost seem enviable instead of rugged.

    I'm reading Little House on The Prairie to my class right now as we study the Westward Movement, and there is no better source I know for education of that time period. The kids love it, which is probably partly because they never saw the television series (which in my opinion, ruined the whole book).

    I'm so glad that you (re)read this book. I feel I could read it every winter, and as you say, celebrate my gas heating, my hot shower, my iPod...but, not my endurance.

    1. I agree, Meredith. Garth Williams illustrations are perfect and as I turned each page to a new picture, I had such a strong sense of nostalgia for my childhood!

      I would love to read another in this series in a few months, so maybe I'll pick up Little House on the Prairie. I agree with you about the television show. My daughter enjoyed watching it when she was little, but I wasn't a fan. It was nothing like I envisioned as a child.


I may not answer your comments in a timely fashion, but I always answer. Check back soon!