The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I started reading and reviewing the Little House on the Prairie books many months ago, people frequently told me that The Long Winter was their favourite, and the one that had stayed with them most vividly. Penny told me to only read it during the summer months, as the cold weather described would chill me to the bone! Therefore, when I started reading it several weeks ago, I had high expectations. Reading a book that is totally seasonally inappropriate is not something I usually do, but I am glad I followed Penny’s advice; reading this before bed in the sweltering heat of a New York summer certainly helped to cool me down! This is the first book where I really came to understand the desperately harsh conditions pioneers lived under; the Ingalls family came close to starving and barely managed to keep themselves warm while the blizzards raged outside for an unimaginable seven months. More serious and less carefree than the other books, The Long Winter deals with the struggle to survive in the face of severe adversity, and not in the day to day happenings of Laura and her sisters out on the prairie. Though that might appear to make it not as interesting as the others, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I was fascinated by the ingenuity of the Ingalls’ and of their neighbours in De Smet, and I could hardly bear to put the book down as the situation got worse and the wheat sack grew emptier and emptier…would they make it through the winter?! (Obviously I knew the answer, but it’s the same with Pride and Prejudice…we all know Darcy and Elizabeth will get together, but you can’t help being on tenterhooks nonetheless!)

The Long Winter begins at the Ingalls’ shanty out on the prairie. The sun is shining, and Laura is helping Pa get the hay in. All seems happy and well; they have had a good harvest, the weather is warm, they are out of town and on their own land again, yet within walking distance of all the amenities that De Smet offers, such as school for the girls and a store for Pa to trade and buy food and equipment without having to travel for days. Ma and Pa have achieved a happy compromise between town and country life, and they are looking forward to settling down at last. However, there are ominous signs here and there that these halcyon days are not going to last; Laura and Pa come across muskrat dens that have unusually thick walls; the sign of a long winter ahead. At the beginning of September, there is an unexpected frost, and no livestock or birds in sight to shoot for food. Come October, there is a fierce blizzard, and it soon becomes clear, after a warning from the Indians that a seven months’ winter is coming, that they are going to experience a cold spell unprecedented in the region.

As a precaution, Pa decides to move the family back to town for the winter. It’s not ideal, but being snowed in on the prairie with no way to get to town should they get sick or run out of food is too big a risk to take, and so the family abandon the claim in October and return to De Smet. They move back into the building on Main Street that Pa built when they first arrived, and Pa sets about getting it boarded up and water tight. As usual, Ma soon makes things homey and ensures they have plenty of provisions stored up. The girls go to school and make friends, and Laura takes delight in teaching poor Mary everything she has learned that day when she returns home. Town life suits them well, but then there is a fearful blizzard that strikes during the day, leaving the children trapped in the school and nearly killing them as they try to get home. This blizzard blows over, but it is followed by more; the cold is crippling, the fuel burns away quickly as Ma struggles to keep the house warm, and no one dares venture far from their own front door. School is cancelled and even getting across the street to the store is a major adventure when you can’t see anything apart from the whiteness of a storm. Everyone in town is worried that the Indian man was right; to have such storms so long before Christmas is unheard of.

The Wilder brothers, Almanzo and Royal, have made sure they have enough provisions to last them through the winter in their bachelor dwellings in town. Almanzo has stored up a season’s worth of wheat to sow when he gets back to his claim. No one else is too worried about provisions as they are in town and trains come regularly, even in bad weather. However, just before Christmas the weather gets so bad that the train gets stuck and there is no chance of any more coming through. That train was bringing the town vital stores to get it through the winter; without it, many families will find themselves without adequate food or fuel provisions to last if the storms go on as long as the Indians say they will. There will be no jolly Christmas with a lavish meal for the Ingalls’ this year, though of course Ma manages to produce a delicious meal even when unexpected guests arrive. However, even though Ma and Pa try and preserve a sense of normality, with the blizzards getting worse and possibly months to go before any provisions can get to De Smet, how will they manage to get their family through this terribly long winter?

What I loved about this is how I felt everything along with the Ingalls’. The chapters become repetitive and claustrophobic, just as their life does; trapped in the house, with little to no variation in their food, and a constant feeling of lethargy and numbness due to the constant, biting cold and gnawing hunger, they have no energy to be cheerful. It is all Ma can do to get some food on the table; they have to use a coffee grinder to make flour and they run out of gas for the lamp so Ma uses a button, some calico, and some wheel grease to make a light for the little house. There is no time to do anything for pleasure; the daylight hours are reserved for the constant activity of grinding wheat and twisting hay for fuel, and they go to bed as early as possible to prevent wasting any food or fuel that could be used the next day. Staying warm is nearly impossible, despite the fact the fire is constantly burning, and the cold seems never ending. Even Pa loses his famously mild temper in his frustration with the howling blizzards. On every page I wondered how much worse could it get, how much longer could they hold out? The strength, positivity and resourcefulness of the Ingalls’ was wonderful to read. I wonder how a family today would cope in the same situation; so used are we to our modern conveniences and electronic, digitised lives, how would we even know where to begin if we were left without light, heat and supermarkets? I fear not many of us would survive. They had to be brave and tenacious; reading of Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland’s daring in particular was thrilling; but I won’t reveal any more as I don’t want to ruin the story for those who haven’t read it yet!

The books in this series just keep getting better and better; Little Town on the Prairie is next, and with the widened cast of characters who will no doubt be involved, I’m looking forward to some new relationships being formed. I’m guessing now Almanzo Wilder has arrived in town, it will be time for some romance to develop…

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48 comments

  1. As above!! Love these books , they would be my desert island picks definitely. I must rad them again too. I also have a book whcih I bought in NYC about Laura’s life and there is her home somewhere in the mid west I guess which is now a museum…………another place on my wishlist! Enjoy your last weeks Rachel Jenny xx

    1. Glad you’re a fan, Jenny! Oh I would love to go out to the prairies and see the places where Laura and her family lived…a wishlist trip, definitely! Thank you Jenny, I will!!

  2. As you say, this is the one that really stuck with me. I could not put it down. All the things that you mentioned are still so clear to me: the grinding wheat, the twisting hay, and (most of all) Pa losing his temper! I remember being so concerned for Almanzo and Cap. Imagine the guts it took to go on that journey. Our little farmer boy done himself proud!
    This is one of those “children’s books” that I wish everyone would read. For some reason, the Little House books seem to be identified as books for girls. I wish that wasn’t the case.
    I think The Children’s Blizzards has been mentioned here before. Getting stuck at a school house really happened. And many others were not so lucky as Laura and Carrie.

    1. I’m about to start reading the series to my son (aged 7). I entirely agree with you, I think there’s a lot in these books for boys to enjoy.

    2. I know! I was so worried they would get stuck and have to dig a hole in the snow to hide in or something! Yes – I agree. While its told from Laura’s point of view, the action, adventure and survival tips would definitely appeal to boys and it’s a shame it has been stereotyped as a girly book.
      Yes – I was going to read a book about those blizzards and then decided not to as I knew I would find it too sad.

  3. I’m rereading this series with my kids (a boy and a girl, Nancy), and we’re currently in On the Banks of Plum Creek. Having just barely gotten through the chapter where the grasshoppers come, I might not survive The Long Winter. I have taken their losses so personally as an adult. Throughout, I’ve been struck by how beautiful the writing is. More than just an interesting narrative or memoir, this series is bewilderingly human and impressively writerly all at the same time. Such a joy!

    1. Fantastic, Sara! Having only read these as an adult, I find them very involving and I can imagine children not fully grasping the pure terror and frustration of many of the situations described. How wonderful that you get to share these with your children – I hope to be able to do the same one day. A joy indeed!

  4. The Long Winter is one of my favorites in the series. (Farmer Boy is my personal favorite, as well as Little Town on the Praire.)

    Today at the library I saw a whole book about Laura, Rose and Almanzo’s travels out West, written by Laura in letters! I had no idea she wrote another book!! I’m moving in two weeks so didn’t check it out, but I will!! :-)

    1. I loved Farmer Boy too…I just started Little Town on the Prairie last night so we’ll see how I find that!

      I have heard of that book! But the more I learn about Laura’s life the more sad and not like the books it is…I kind of want to remain in ignorance! But if it’s great and not sad let me know!

      1. Okay. Yeah, I got a bit of a weird jolt while I was reading these books, when it occured to me that all the “characters” were real, and are now dead. Dumb how I didn’t think about that, but they do seem like happy characters who should live forever… :-)

  5. When I was young and reading all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I loved The Long Winter almost as much as my favourite book in the series, These Happy Golden Years. But, looking back on the books, The Long Winter is the one I remember best, both as far as plot details and as a reading experience. I found it so thrilling, though I always resented Pa for having been so ill-prepared. Growing up in a maritime climate, where snow was a shocking novelty, the long winter seemed almost fantastical. Having lived through blizzards now myself, I think it is much better that they be contained to books!

    1. Clare I know what you mean! I live in Hawaii. I’ve never even seen snow. The book was so vivid I still felt like I was experiencing that long winter, even though I had (and have) no winter experience at all.

    2. Yes, I think The Long Winter has been the most memorable for me so far as well because it is so suspenseful and atmospheric…though not much actually happens, the tenseness of it all is definitely something that stays with you. Now I’ve experienced an East Coast blizzard I can somewhat understand what they went through…English snow is nothing compared – I too prefer snow like that to remain in books!

    1. Oh you have to start with Little House in the Big Woods, Liz! It starts off when Laura is 4 and then the rest of the books document her growing up – wonderful! You could read them out of turn but I think you’ll appreciate them most if you read them in order and grow to love Laura as she develops into an adult.

  6. I am so happy to know that you enjoyed The Long Winter, Rachel, and a big thank you for the mention and link.
    When one thinks of just this past winter’s snowstorms and the havoc they caused in these modern times, one can only imagine how difficult the storms on the prairie were and their constancy for six or seven months.
    One of the scenes that terrified me was when one of the first blizzards hit with the children in school. The dangerous journey home, just a short distance away, struck fear in me, especially the first time I read it so many years ago.
    I was a bit angry at Pa, too, for not setting more by, but, these storms were so bad and so many. Moving to town was the preparatory measure. Surely, he must have thought, they would be okay. Provisions would come. I forgave him, however, when he went to Almanzo and Royal, sensing they had food somewhere.
    We whine when our power goes out for a few days. I dare say most of us would find it hard pressed to survive in such conditions.
    What a great review, Rachel. Off you go to discover the next book.
    Love these illustrations.

    1. My pleasure, Penny! Thank you for telling me how wonderful this was so long ago! I entirely agree with you – the school house scene was truly terrifying and I was on the edge of my seat. To think that you could get lost just seconds from your own front door is beyond my comprehension.
      Yes – it was strange to read of Pa not being prepared, but he got his family through the best he could and he certainly did better than most fathers would today I should think.
      Thank you Penny! Glad you enjoyed my thoughts and the illustrations – they are such a delight, aren’t they?

  7. Wonderful review. Of course you know, Penny and I are kindred spirits. This is one of my favorites. I have lived in an old farmhouse on a prairie. That farmhouse was heated only with wood. I can relate to the Ingalls family. I, of course, had the advantage of electricity, phone, and a car so I had it much easier than they did, but I know it is so much work. I have never been snowed in for more than four days, but even at that I can identify with how secluded and alone they felt. The most memorable scene to me, besides the blizzard at school ,was when Laura woke up to see that the nails poking through the roof were fuzzy with frost. Bed should be a warm cozy place. Oooo…it makes me shiver on this warm day

    1. Oh wow, Janet! What an experience! I would love to get out to the prairies and experience what it is like to live there, even if just for a few days. Hopefully one day! Oh yes – and when they wake up with snow on the blankets – can you imagine?!

  8. I always loved the TV programme but I’ve never actually read any of the books – I think that’s going to have to change soon. Great review and thanks for reminding me of some great stories that I should take some time to immerse myself in.

  9. I love these books, and especially this one. I’ve been eking them out slowly, over years, reading them in the wrong order…
    It looks like you read a particularly lovely, vintage edition of this. i happened upon your blog recently, and it’s illustrated so nicely!

    1. Hi Paul, nice to meet you! Thanks for coming by. Reading them in the wrong order?! That’s no good! You must mend your ways!
      How lovely of you to say so! Glad you’re enjoying it!

  10. I have been rereading the series this summer and have found it to be more engaging than when I read it as a youngster. At that time I was disappointed that the books were not like the TV series for the most part. Now I see that they are filled with such rich detail and a way of putting the reader right in the story. I am reading Farmer Boy now and Almanzo’s background was just as interesting as Laura’s. Interesting that he was the one who had the crush on her and not the other way around. Loved the descriptions of the meals his mother would prepare and the quantity! Am so glad others love these books too. They are national treasures.

    1. I’m so glad you’re enjoying them on the second go round, Marilyn. I loved Farmer Boy too – absolutely fantastic descriptions of feasts!! National treasures is the perfect description for them – I am so glad I discovered them this year.

  11. I read this many, many years ago, and I remember loving it so much. Even though it’s been such a long time since I last read it, after reading your wonderful post about it, I’m now hankering to get it down from the shelf and immerse myself into it once again. National treasure – I absolutely and totally agree with you too, Marilyn.

  12. I love Long Winter, but must admit that Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years are my two real favorites. Well, it’s really tough for me to pick one favorite! I’ve been reading the Little House books for forty years…plus everything else I can find by and about Laura Ingalls Wilder.
    Really enjoyed your review, by the way! :)

    1. Laura, it’s so hard to choose, isn’t it? Every book I read in the series surpasses the next – just when I think I have a favourite the next one gets better! I’m just reading These Happy Golden Years now and loving it, but Little Town on the Prairie was fantastic too – how to pick a favourite?! I’m so glad you’ve loved these books for so long. I can’t wait to pass them onto my children! Thank you! :)

  13. The Long Winter was my favourite but since a little English girl of seven I have been obsessed by Laura Ingalls Wilder! There ingenuity and faith and enjoyment in the simple things in life are what impressed me I think. I wouldn’t mind an Almanzo myself – he was a bit of a hero in my eyes, both for collected Laura to take her home in a blizzard and for riding out to get grain with Cap Garland. Sadly Cap Garland died in a farming accident. I was also upset to discover that Almanzo had a stroke at a young age and never recovered full health – he walked with a stick. I was sad to hear that what no doubt had helped capture Laura’s heart – his all round action hero-ness had been subdued. For much of their married life they were chicken farmers. She also had a tricky relationship with her daughter Rose – who turned out to be quite a woman!

    1. I’m glad you’ve known about these for so long – I wish I had discovered them younger. That is so sad about Cap and Almanzo – I have made a conscious decision not to find out too many biographical details about the characters because I know I will be sad and it will reduce my enjoyment of the books!

  14. I’m ashamed of myself! Please ignore the typo’s in the above comment – I do know it should be their not there (train of thought got in the way!) also collecting not collected. If there are anymore I would rather not know!

  15. Growing up on Wisconsin and being named “Laura”, it was no surprise that my step-grandmother gave me my first copy of “Little House in the Big Woods”. I devoured the remainder of the books and loved them all my life. I also recommend “Caddie Woodlawn” for an excellent read.

  16. Great review. I read the Little House books extensively as a child and The Long Winter was one of my favorites. I’m rereading the books to my boys and we are currently on Farmer Boy. I did skip ahead and read them a chapter out of The Long Winter last night in honor of our blizzard today. I read them “Cap Garland,” the chapter where the kids are stuck at school during the blizzard and try to make it back to town.

    1. I just found this blog, kindred spirits!
      I read the whole series as a child, and again with my daughter, and now my granddaughter is reading them!
      A cousin gave me ‘Little Town on the Prairie’ so I read that and realized there were more, which I borrowed from the library. I have learned so many very basic crafts and day to day activities from these books!
      As was mentioned, ‘The Long Winter’ really stayed with me, and I have referenced it many times, especially when I use a coffee grinder and think about the constant grinding of wheat!
      I also loved ‘Those Happy Golden Years’, so romantic but poignant!
      We vacationed once in very upstae New York, and realized we were not far from Malone, which I immediately remembered was Almanzo’s hometown. I brought the whole family there to the homestead museum. Just yesterday, ironically, I reminded my 7 year old granddaughter of the visit, since she had just finished ‘Farmer Boy’! She had been perhaps 3 or 4 at the time, but did remember it! Probably because grandma, her mom and Aunt Jenny were such fans.

  17. I’ve read the books, too. I can’t help but see how much has changed culturally since the late 19th century: the blatant racism (actually that hasn’t really changed, but legally so), role of women, acceptable ages for romance between partners (today Almanzo would be considered a predator for pursuing a teen), methods of education and discipline, no welfare programs, very few opportunities for people with disabilities. I remember being upset that Mary could no longer attend the local school. I mean she couldn’t even go and listen to the lessons?

    And my understanding is Laura painted the family as better off than they actually were as part of the fiction. I definitely view the books quite differently as an adult than I did as a child, but I still enjoy the writing style. Wilder certainly was descriptive, and I’ve always wondered if she honed that skill describing things for Mary.

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