Saturday, February 23, 2013

Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Long Winter

Hello! After a slow start, winter has ramped up in the area. We've gotten almost 70" snow in the past month. And according to today's Holland Sentinel, another storm is on its way in the coming week. 

Yes, it gets tiring shoveling snow, and it's no fun driving on icy roads, but then I remember Laura Ingalls Wilder and her book, The Long Winter, which describes the especially severe winter of 1880-1881 in Dakota Territory (now South Dakota). 

If you've never read the book, you might be tempted to say that at least they didn't have to worry about power outages or getting cars stuck in the snow. They could just hitch up their horses to a sleigh to get around. True, but as Laura describes it, the blizzards were so severe and so frequent that people in the town of De Smet, where the book takes place, became too afraid to leave their houses for very long. Without the advantage of street lights and other forms of bright lighting, it was dangerous to even go just across the street during a blizzard! 

(Also keep in mind that they endured sub-zero temperatures without the benefit of central heat). 

People stored whatever foods they had harvested from their gardens, but they depended on the general stores in the town for foods they couldn't grow or didn't have enough of - sugar, flour and other grains, salt pork, tea, etc. They also needed coal for their stoves and kerosene for their lamps. 

In turn, the stores had their goods brought in by the railroad. But a series of blizzards left the railroad line consistently blocked by snowdrifts, so the railroad company made the decision in early January to stop running the trains to the region until spring. 

Thus, the rest of the book describes how Laura's family was forced to make do with ever-dwindling supplies. By this point in the book, most of their diet seemed to consist of a bread made from freshly-ground wheat kernels. Nowadays such a bread would be considered a wholesome, natural food, but we would not consider it a well-balanced diet if it made up the majority of our meals. 

Laura sometimes comments that she feels "dull and stupid" as she tries to keep up on her schoolwork (the school in town had closed due to a lack of coal). When I first read the book as a kid, I assumed she felt so listless from a  lack of stimulation - as in being stuck in the same building for months on end. However, as an adult I now realize that she was undoubtedly malnourished, and that was probably the reason for her listlessness. 

But then, as now, winter eventually makes way to spring. When the train finally comes, with supplies and a delayed Christmas barrel full of gifts for Laura's family, a joyous celebration occurs. The very last chapter of the book, "Christmas In May" is such a treat to read, as Laura's family and some good friends feast on a lavish holiday dinner.

My perspective on the book has changed greatly since I was a kid. When I was younger, I thought that the book was incredibly boring - all the family seemed to do was keep track of the blizzards and grind wheat and twist hay into sticks (that's what they burned for fuel when they ran out of coal). But now, as an adult, I am in awe of their resourcefulness and creativity in getting through an incredibly difficult time. 

And I realize that our current spell of winter snow is so tame by comparison. Any inconveniences we have due to snow and ice are minor when one considers what Laura's family endured during that long-ago winter. 

If you and your children have never read The Long Winter, you owe it to yourselves to find a copy. You will marvel at what Laura's family went through - and will be grateful that our winters are no longer as challenging!


  1. I pulled the copy from the church library and am reading it right now.

  2. Great! I hope you enjoy reading it!