Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter Imperfectly Remembered

The original jacket by Helen Sewell.

On snowy weekends, details from The Long Winter, my favorite Little House book, often pop into mind. But I haven’t reread it for years,  perhaps because I wanted to remember the story as I thought it was.  But even a razor-sharp memory doesn’t retain indelible impressions of childhood favorites forever, so the last stormy weekend, the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder came up from the basement.

For me, the story had been all about the relationship between Charles Ingalls and his second daughter Laura, and I can still call up ghostly images of Garth Williams’ illustrations of them haying in the shimmering summer heart and twisting hay into sticks in the freezing cold.  If Laura had been Ma’s little lady and not helped Pa with the haying, then the Ingalls family probably would have perished during the great winter of 1880-1.  The tomboy daddy’s girl seemed to be the most independent woman in the Ingalls family, being freer from gender role expectations than Ma and her sisters.  I hadn’t really taken in the extent to which Laura’s rebellious thoughts stayed in her head and how quickly she backed down when her parents—usually Ma—shut down outbursts with a few quiet words.

The neat division between the work of men and women was no surprise then, but resentment about the inequality between the sexes bubbled up now in two small incidents.  Pa had the freedom (weather and work permitting) to venture into town for news and company, but the womenfolk had to stay within the four walls.  The Wilder brothers weren’t facing privation in their warm, well-provisioned feed store.  It seemed unfair, even unkind, that Royal and Manzo fed the undernourished Ingalls stacks of buckwheat cakes, molasses, and fried salt pork when he visited, but didn’t send him home with a care package for the half-starved women in the semi-dark grinding wheat berries in a coffee mill for brown bread.  Perhaps that would have been a silent rebuke to Pa for failing to provide for his family.  Manzo’s wild goose chase across the frozen prairie to find a farmer with wheat to sell who might not exist did save the community from starvation until the trains could come through.  But now I can’t be sure if he hitched up the horses motivated more by pity for his neighbors or the desire to keep his seed wheat from them…

Then there was Ma, the upright Scotswoman, who taught school before she was married.  As a girl I wasn’t capable of putting myself in her shoes, even though it was obvious how hard it must have been to juggle childcare, housework, and homeschooling in the middle of the nowheres where her husband was happiest. Rereading The Long Winter during the pandemic forced me to recognize the remarkable equanimity she showed in the face of a likely death from starvation or the cold.  Making sourdough brown bread was not a fun activity to help pass the time.   Cleverly constructing a lamp from a dish, axle grease, a little scrap of cloth, and a button gave them a little light to read by when the kerosene ran out.   Admonishing her girls to be thankful for what they had still sounded prissy, but I had to admit from my experience during Covid that there is more strength in cheerfulness than in self-pity, both for your spirits and for those around you.  What was a  temporary toilet paper shortage, compared to keeping a small house holding six people, including one toddler, habitable during seven months of blizzards.

The Long Winter remains for me an extraordinary story of one family’s survival, even though I know for other people condemn it for what Wilder did not say about the effects the push westward had on the Native Americans in its path.  They point to the scene where the old Native American man comes into Fuller’s Hardware to warn the settlers in a dialect no one ever spoke that this winter will be the worst in decades, with seven months of blizzards.  In a 2015 blog post, Debbie Reece argues that such  scenes teach Native American children to despise themselves and non-Native American readers to hate indigenous people.   I have to admit to having forgotten this scene, but I am pretty sure that I did not think as a child that it was “true,” any more than the behavior and speech of  Native American characters in Westerns was.  It may have had something to do with  my mother who used to imitate the stilted dialogue to drive home the point that the programs were too ridiculous to watch.  Not having any familiarity with Native American individuals or knowledge of their cultures, there were no better ideas to replace the clumsy, disrespectful stereotypes.  Now that scene seems more awkward because it is so obviously constructed as a plot device.   The old man’s forecast was accurate, but presented as the mysterious knowledge of primitive people, and it follows the scene where Pa explains to Laura what his careful observation of  how thick the muskrats were building the walls of their houses might mean for the winter ahead..Rereading classics, especially ones whose reputations have changed, can be as important keeping up with new books.  It risks disappointment, because there is always the chance that the memories are better than the book.  The ones that hold up to repeated rereadings force us to test our memories’ validity and if necessary revise our interpretation in light of new things noticed and new ideas about its reception.

The hay that was twisted into sticks to heat the Ingalls’ house during the Long Winter.

4 thoughts on “Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter Imperfectly Remembered

  1. I reread the scene with the Indian coming to warn the settlers. I found it ridiculous that someone should claim this scene “teaches teach Native American children to despise themselves and non-Native American readers to hate indigenous people.” What it taught me is that a very kind Native American man came to warn the settlers that there would be a severe winter, and the settlers listened to him. His description of the repeated pattern of bad winter tells me that the Indians kept careful track of those patterns, not that it was “the mysterious knowledge of primitive people”. The scene with Pa taking about the muskrats indicates that Pa, like the Indian, was reading the signs of a bad winter coming. It shows that in both cultures, people kept track of weather signs. It should teach Native American children of a settler recalling a kindness by one of their people to the settlers, and that the non-Native American readers should appreciate this.

    • Both readings are possible and plausible, but in this cultural moment a lot depends upon the background of the reader. Your point taken about the importance of reading the weather–it resists the reading of the passage according to easy opposites. Thanks for writing.

  2. I reread the long winter in my early 30s after having picked up a copy cheap to read in a second hand shop. I had just immigrated to Melbourne Aus in the middle of a blazing hot summer with my then husband and the job he had been promised hadn’t started so we were broke and in a scary situation. Reading the Long Winter completely cheered us up (I started to read extracts to him and he read the whole book himself) The long winter is a horror story and a survival story for adults. The Ingalls come so close to death by starvation or freezing to death it is nail biting.

  3. Thank you for re-reading this book again, I too haven’t read it again since my childhood in the early 80’s.

    I found your particular posting, as I was researching the story/documentary of the “Wolfpack” (6 teenaged brothers, their mother & special needs sister, who had all been confined to their small NYC apartment in a housing project (for 24/7, for almost their entire lives) by their controlling, paranoid & domineering father).
    One reviewers made a parallel comparison to the claustrophobia & lack of socialization in The Long Winter.

    I realized at that moment that while one of my favorites, I hadn’t re-read The Long Winter since probably the 4th grade.
    So, I decided to search for a synopsis on The Long Winter (I so wish I had time to re-read it as you did, but unfortunately, life is usy at this time —
    I wish I’d had your same idea during covid, while in lockdown).

    Your entry was the very first option that Google returned in my search of “The Long Winter synopsis”.

    I’m happy & thankful that yours was the first one I read, as you didn’t sugarcoat the book or gloss over the troubling socio norms, inequality or downright racism from back then (as I was possibly hoping for when I initially performed my search?).

    Maybe I was hoping to harken back to a time when things seemed simpler… even happier… however, I now see from reading your words & interpretation, that The Long Winter (and the 1800’s for that matter) were neither simpler, nor happier… especially if you were born a girl/woman — quite the opposite, in fact.

    Thank you again for your poignant perspective & sobering review.

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