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…