The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder | Jane Boursaw Photo

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Ever since I joined Peninsula Community Library’s book club, Pageturners, I’ve been reading more books (all part of the “get Jane reading again” plan) and also thinking about my own favorite childhood books.

I inherited my mom’s love of books and libraries. She was on the library board when they decided to purchase the land at the corner of Island View Road and Center Road. You’ll notice that there’s a brand new library being built there right now (help support the new library here).

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They’re like old friends, these beloved books, and I still have most of the original books I read in the 1960s and 70s growing up in Old Mission. Scholastic Books delivery day at Old Mission Peninsula School was the best day ever!

So I thought it would be fun to start a new series here on the Gazette called “Beloved Books.” I have quite a list of my own lined up to write about, but would also love to see YOUR beloved books stories. More info at the bottom of this story.

The Long Winter – A Benchmark for My Life

Let’s kick things off today with “The Long Winter” (since winter is not quite ready to leave us here on the Old Mission Peninsula), the sixth book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series.

As most of us know, the books follow the Ingalls family – Ma and Pa, with girls Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace – as they journey west in a covered wagon in the late 1800s, starting from their log cabin in Wisconsin and traveling through Kansas and Minnesota and settling in the Dakota Territory, where Laura meets and marries Almanzo Wilder.

While I love all of the Little House books – and still have the Harper Trophy paperback editions from my childhood – “The Long Winter” has always stood out for me for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, whenever I get whiny about life, I think about the Ingalls family out there in that desolate winter landscape, huddled around their woodstove, their meager supply of potatoes, beans, flour and tea dwindling as they endure blizzard after blizzard, with only their home-made haysticks to keep them warm.

It was only after I grew up and raised my own family that I realized the Ingalls literally almost starved that winter. You don’t really think about that when you read it as a kid, but your perspective changes when you grow up and have your own family to look after.

So I’ve always used “The Long Winter” as a benchmark for my own life. When things get really bad, are we starving and twisting haysticks to keep us warm? Are we waiting for supplies to arrive on a train that can’t get through the snow? Are the kids nearly lost to a blinding blizzard on their way home from school? No? Then fear not, everything will be ok.

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder | Jane Boursaw Photo

The Ingalls – Living Their Best Life Amidst Turmoil

Even though things get really desperate that winter, the Ingalls’ always have such a great attitude. When Pa’s hands are too raw and sore from twisting hay to play his fiddle, they sing songs instead. When food is running low, they each try to give their own food to other family members. “I’m not hungry, honest, Pa,” says Laura. “I wish you’d finish mine.”

And aside from one incident at the end of the winter where everyone is going a little stir-crazy and Pa snaps and shakes his fist at YET ANOTHER BLIZZARD, he’s usually whistling or singing a little tune as he goes about the business of keeping his family alive.

Likewise, Ma does her part to lift everyone’s spirits during the long, dark days. With Christmas approaching, she asks the girls if they’d like to save their “Youth’s Companions” and her church papers to open on Christmas Day. Of course, they say yes. “It will help us to learn self-denial,” says Mary.

When the flour runs out and they have only wheat, Ma improvises, using a coffee grinder to grind the wheat into flour. Life lesson: There’s always a way. You just have to think outside the box.

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder | Jane Boursaw Photo

Laura and Almanzo – A Match Made in De Smet

Aside from “Farmer Boy,” I believe this is the first book where we see the intersection of the Wilder boys and the Ingalls clan (someone correct me if I’m wrong on that).

Like the Ingalls family, Almanzo Wilder and his brother Royal travel west to settle homesteads in the Dakota Territory. Also like the Ingalls, they have a small building in the town of De Smet, South Dakota, which includes a feed store in the front and a cozy living space in the back, where Almanzo fries up “light, fluffy, buckwheat pancakes with plenty of molasses” (can’t you just smell that lovely aroma and hear the crackle of them frying?).

The first time Laura meets Almanzo is in the fall, when she and her little sister Carrie get lost on the prairie near their homestead. Fortunately, they happen across the Wilder boys bringing in hay, and Almanzo is able to point her in the right direction to get back home. But first, “His blue eyes twinkled down at her as if he had known her a long time.” Uh huh, yep.

And when things get desperate and Pa goes to the Wilder’s feed store, pulls the plug out of the knothole in the wall and fills his bucket with wheat for his family, do you think he has any idea that his daughter will one day marry the man who tries to wave away his money? We – the readers – know what’s ahead, but Pa probably doesn’t have any inkling until the next book, “Little Town on the Prairie,” when Almanzo asks to escort 15-year-old Laura home from a church revival meeting.

And just think about the impact that the Wilder boys have on the Ingalls family and the citizens of De Smet. People likely would have died if Almanzo and Cap Garland had not decided to risk their own lives by venturing south of town to bring back a supply of wheat, since the trains couldn’t get through all winter.

“The Long Winter” and I go back a long ways – nearly 50 years – and I’ll continue to read this beloved book throughout the rest of my life, looking to the Ingalls for inspiration when life gets challenging.

Got a beloved book you’d like to write about? Write it up (500 to 750 words) and email it to me, along with a headshot and short bio for your author box. Tell us about the book and why you love it. Could be from your childhood or adulthood, either way.

If you have questions, feel free to email me at jane@oldmission.net for more info.

Buy “The Long Winter” over at Amazon.com. (Full Disclosure: That link is what is known as an “affiliate link,” meaning if you click through it, I get a small percentage of whatever you buy during your time browsing Amazon.com.)

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I reread all of the Little House books last autumn after a 55 year hiatus. I would not call Long Winter my favorite, but that might be because of the structure of the book. As I’m remembering it, Wilder begins every chapter with a new blizzard and after a while the unrelenting snow and wind are almost suffocating. Additionally, this is one of the few Little House books that doesn’t ring true to me because the Ingslls are a little too good (plenty of folks would surely buckle physically and emotionally under that pressure). That said, thanks for sharing your observations on some of my favorite childhood books, Jane.

    • Thanks for the note, Rachel! Yeah, the structure is definitely interesting. And I wonder if it’s a case of her writing this later in life and putting her own spin on how the family reacted to the stress. Sort of romanticizing the situation.

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