Thursday, June 30, 2016

Reading The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, during the longest California heatwave ever

The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Published 1940

When I started The Long Winter on June 1st, Southern California hit triple digits.  Today is the last day of June, and the heatwave continues.  At least tomorrow's high temps will only reach 99 degrees. Triple digits usually come in July and last about a week or a few consecutive days - not in June, and not for an entire month!

When will it end?
Reading The Long Winter during an endless triple-digit heatwave made me think about surviving unbearable conditions, with no change or end in sight.  Of course, it will end, but when you are living through it for longer than usual you feel helpless and tired and even a little worried that things will remain this way forever.  That is how Laura felt when her family survived seven months of blizzards in De Smet, South Dakota.

Speaking of LONG, my notes are excessive, but I will do my best to keep it short and sweet.   Let's start at the beginning:

Laura helped Pa stack hay; however, "Ma did not like to see women working in the field. Only foreigners did that.  Ma and the girls were American."  Leave it to Ma to admit something politically incorrect for today's audience.  Personally, I do not take offense because Ma lived during the late 1800s, and that was her world.  It was not that women were incapable - as Laura proved she was capable - but this was just the way it was in the 1800s.

Pa and Laura found a thick muskrat's home, ready for a tough winter.  Laura asked how the muskrat knew to build such a home, and Pa explained that God gave animals an instinct to know what to do; whereas, Pa said,
"we're not animals.  We're humans, and like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free.  That means we got to take care of ourselves."
(Of course, Pa connected everything to the Declaration of Independence.  Oh, wait! The Founders believed God created man free and independent, too.  Duh!)  But wait, there's more...Laura wondered,
"I thought God takes care of us."
"He does," Pa said, "so far as we do what's right.  And He gives us a conscience and brains to know what's right.  But He leaves it to us to do as we please.  That's the difference between us and everything else in creation." 
Laura wanted to know if muskrats could do as they pleased, and Pa explained instinct to her.  Muskrats will only build the same home, but man can build any home he likes.  "So if his house don't keep out the weather, that's his look-out; he's free and independent."   (That's when Laura tried to comprehend the shanty-style house which did not keep out the weather.  Maybe man is not so sharp after all.)

Frozen cows
Before winter, an early storm brought freezing cold temps.  Several roaming cattle froze in their place, in Pa's field.  Laura went with Pa to see what had happened and watched Pa free them from the frozen ground.  Laura tried to explain to Ma and Mary, but Mary was incredulous:
"It must be one of Laura's queer notions," Mary said, busily knitting in her chair by the stove.  "How could cattle's heads freeze to the ground, Laura?  It's really worrying, the way you talk sometimes."  
And to herself, Laura realized she could not explain how she felt, "that somehow in the wild night and storm, the stillness that was underneath all sounds on the prairie had seized the cattle."  (Yeah, how do you explain that to a realist like Mary?)

One day an Indian came into town to warn the settlers of the coming blizzards.  This prompted homesteaders to move from their claim shanties to town where they could live closer to supplies and each other.   That is what the Ingalls family did.  This also meant that Laura and Carrie could attend school, which they were both weary to do; but Laura is all for having courage in the face of fear.

For example, one day at school, a blizzard came.  Laura immediately thought how to keep warm if they had to wait out the storm: they could burn the wooden desks.  Just like her Pa, she was proactive!  Gratefully, they did not have to burn the desks because they were all escorted into town by the school superintendent.  Fear and courage makes you find ways to survive.

Almanzo, Laura's future husband, lived in De Smet, too, where he and his brother Royal were bach-ing.  Almanzo lied about his age to get a claim because he believed he was as capable as any 21-year old, to own land.  Laura explained,
Anybody knew that no two men were alike.  You could measure cloth with a yardstick, or distance by miles, but you could not lump men together and measure them by any rule.  Brains and character did not depend on anything but the man himself.  Some men did not have the sense at sixty that some had at sixteen.  And Almanzo considered that he was as good, any day, as any man twenty-one years old.
Those blizzards kept coming, one on top of another, and they prevented the trains from delivering supplies to town.  It was a burden on Laura's heart, and she tried hard to be cheerful, always.  Ma impressed upon her girls to keep their chins up.  She really was a strong woman through all of this.  Eventually they ran out of coal and had to burn hay.  They stretched out the potatoes and brown bread for food, and tea to drink, for as long as they could.  Eventually Laura lost her appetite.

Twisting hay
Imagine how they felt when in January they learned that the trains would not run again until spring!  Pa told them the story of the engineer who tried to move the train that was buried under snow, but quit.  Each girl had a different opinion.  Carrie said she did not blame him for quitting; Laura said he should have found another way to move the train; and Mary said he should have just obeyed the superintendent.

The superintendent then tried to move the train, but failed.  And Pa said it was because he lacked patience, and Ma added perseverance.  Pa said,
"Well, he's an easterner.  It takes patience and perseverance to contend with things out here in the west."
Once Ma snapped at Charles for swearing - "Gosh dang!" - then apologized to him.  Pa understood the reason for her short temper.   Ma is never short fused.

Grace whined because her "feet's" were cold, and Laura scolded her for complaining.
"For shame, Grace!  A big girl like you!  Go warm your feet," Laura told her.
Almanzo hiding his wheat

This I could not understand: Almanzo hid his good seed wheat in the wall of Royal's feed store, where they were staying in town.  But, the town ran out of food, and people were going to starve. There was a rumor that a homesteader was wintering on his claim twenty miles outside of town, and he may have had seed wheat. The men discussed going out to buy it from him to feed the people in town.  Why didn't Almanzo just sacrifice his wheat for the town?  All of his reasons make no sense to me.

Pa considered going to look for the wheat, but Ma put her foot down, literally.
Quietly she told Pa, "I say, No.  You don't take such a chance."
"Why...Caroline!" Pa said.
"Your hauling hay is bad enough," Ma told him.  "You don't go hunting for that wheat."
Pa said mildly, "Not as long as you feel that way about it, I won't.  But..."
"I won't hear any buts," Ma said, still terrible. "This time I put my foot down."
"All right, that settles it," Pa agreed.   
And this time, Ma did not apologize.  Sometimes I think women display more sense than men, and must say so.  Even Pa told her, "You're right, Caroline, you always are."  (I love it when a man can put aside his pride and admit the truth.)

Almanzo said that he was "free, white, and twenty-one; this is a free country, and he was free and independent to do as he pleased."  So he and Cap Garland risked their lives to find this unknown homesteader, in hopes that he would sell his seed wheat, if he had any at all, in order to save the town.  It was excruciatingly painful to read through; but long story short, they made it, found the man, made a deal, and brought home the wheat all in one long day's treacherous journey.

While Almanzo and Cap were traveling, another storm had come, and Pa lashed out at the wind.
Pa rose with a deep breath.  "Well, here it is again."
Then suddenly he shook his clenched fist at the northwest.  "Howl!  blast you!" he shouted.  "We're all here safe!  You can't get at us!  You've tried all winter but we'll beat you yet!  We'll be right here when spring comes!"
Charles, Charles," Ma said soothingly.  "It is only a blizzard.  We're used to them."  
Pa dropped back in his chair.  After a minute he said, "That was foolish, Caroline.  Seemed for a minute like that wind was something alive, trying to get at us."
"We'll beat you yet!"
After the storm had passed, Loftus, the store owner who provided the money for Almanzo and Cap to purchase the wheat, prepared to resell it to the families in town.  However, he charged a high price, even though Almanzo and Cap did not charge Loftus extra for hauling.  Pa told him he had a right to do as he pleased with his own property, and a profit was understandable; but he reminded him that every customer was free and independent, too.
"This winter won't last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it's over.  Your business depends on our good will.  You maybe don't notice that now, but along next summer you'll likely notice it."
"That's so, Loftus," Gerald Fuller said.  "You got to treat folks right or you don't last long in business, not in this country."   
In the end, Loftus sold the wheat for exactly what it cost him to purchase it.

Every day the girls ground wheat and Ma made bread.  And every day Laura felt dull and stupid and tired.  She even asked Pa if the blizzard could beat them, but Pa encouraged, "No, it's got to quit sometime and we don't.  It can't lick us.  We won't give up."

That next morning, Laura woke to the warm Chinook winds blowing.  Spring had arrived, and that meant the trains would come.  And they did.  The blizzards were done, winter was over, and the Ingalls family ended The Long Winter with Christmas in May.

Well, this was not very short, after all.  The bottom line is this: The Long Winter is essential reading material.    


  1. I read this last winter when it was very cold outside. It really made me appreciate central heating! As you say, a very good book.

    1. I'm so far removed from the idea of cold that I cannot even imagine how cold they truly were.

  2. You made me laugh with "Leave it to Ma to admit something politically incorrect for today's audience." You are so funny! And I appreciate the fact that you noted it was "a different place and time." Definitely! We cannot logically hold authors who wrote in the past accountable to today's standards! :) Fantastic review! I had so much fun reading it, Ruth! Thank you for participating in this Read-Along!

    1. Thank you, and thank you for hosting. I love excuses to read The Little House series. : D

  3. I agree; The Long Winter is essential reading. It's one of my favorites of the series. Last time I read it was also in summer, but since I was on the Central Coast at the time, it wasn't hot at all...

  4. Oh my goodness 99 degrees!! We think it is sweltering here when temperatures reach 80. I can't even imagine it 20 degrees warmer!

    1. Oh, 80 degrees is wonderful. If only there were such a place where high temps were only 80. : D

  5. I remember this book so well! As a child, I felt so sad for them having to eat potatoes all the time because I loathe potatoes. So it was like, "They're starving and HAVE to eat potatoes -- what a terrible fate!"