When I looked over the Shelf Love archive, it surprised me to see that I have never reviewed one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels. Teresa and I reviewed Pioneer Girl, her (heavily annotated) autobiography, and I reviewed The Wilder Life, a memoir about being a “bonnethead” by Wendy McClure. But despite the fact that I have read all of the Little House books many, many times, and continue to read them as an adult, and read them to my children, I have never brought that reading here. I am currently having my 9-year-old son read The Long Winter aloud to me, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about it as a novel. It is a complex book in a number of ways.
The book opens in the hot prairie summer, with Laura bringing Pa a drink as he’s mowing hay. The two of them find a muskrat house in the slough, and when Pa sees how heavily it’s built, he forecasts a hard winter. Why does God protect the muskrats and not people? Laura wants to know. Because people are free, Pa tells her:
“Can’t muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.
“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of. So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his look-out; he’s free and independent.”
Animal instinct is the theme of the next part of the book, as when the first frost comes, every bird and animal — every bit of game that the Ingalls family requires for food — high-tails it south, presumably under the protection of God. Pa doesn’t like it; Ma, who is an extremely sane person and has no intuition whatsoever, is sure that everything is going to be just fine. Cue ominous music.
The next warning is one step closer from the animals to white men’s civilization (from the point of view of this book, of course.) An Indian walks into Mr. Harthorn’s grocery while Pa is buying a piece of salt pork (significantly because he could not shoot a rabbit), and warns the men that every twenty-one years, a terribly hard winter comes, and there will be blizzards for seven months. Here is the description of the Indian:
He was a very old Indian. His brown face was carved in deep wrinkles and shriveled on the bones, but he stood tall and straight. His arms were folded under a gray blanket, holding it wrapped around him. His head was shaved to a scalp-lock and an eagle’s feather stood up from it. His eyes were bright and sharp.
Here we have a combination of the dignity and wisdom that come with age (“Old! Old! I have seen!” says the Indian), intelligence (the sharp eyes) and a connection with the animal world, protected by God (the eagle feather.) For an analysis of the word “bright” in connection with the Indians’ eyes, I’ll refer you to Tom, who has talked at length about the Prairie Sublime.
I should mention briefly that this is an example of the phenomenon of the myth of the vanishing Indian, in which 19th-century people believed (or wanted to believe) that Indians were a doomed race, fated to disappear. Native people show up quite often in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s earlier books, and in significant numbers. Then, after the vivid moment when the Osage ride away in a long line, they are fewer. This, to my memory, is the last Indian we ever see in her books. After this, the presence of Native people is erased in favor of settler culture.
In any case, soon after this warning, the blizzards do indeed begin, and the narrative is no longer about animals or even Indians, but about the “free and independent” people of the town who are isolated by the snow. Of course Wilder stresses the Ingalls family’s isolation, and the mind-numbing hard work it takes to survive, but she shows several different ways people can react to the pressure. There’s Mr. Foster, who foolishly shoots at a herd of antelope when he’s out of range, and ruins the possibility of food for the town. There are the storekeepers, who raise prices on food and lumber so that only the very rich can afford them. There’s the stationmaster in Brookings, who gives up trying to send a train to the town. And then there are Cap Garland and Almanzo Wilder, who risk their lives in a breathtaking chapter by going in search of wheat they don’t know is even there, to save a starving community.
The end of the narrative arc, then, is about community — two young men who break through the isolation to prove that helping one another is the highest social order. When they bring the wheat back and Mr. Loftus (who fronted the money) proposes to sell the wheat for double what he paid for it because that’s “good business,” the town finally rebels; it’s against the communal spirit in which Cap and Almanzo made the trip. “Who says we made that trip for pay?” demands Almanzo. And Pa reminds Loftus, “Don’t forget every one of us is free and independent. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.” Freedom and independence won’t protect you from the blizzard as the muskrats’ instinct will, but they’ll protect you in a community.
The last chapter of the book, when the spring finally comes and the train full of groceries arrives, is a celebration of family life and of survival, but also of a specific kind of community. The Ingalls’ friends, the Boasts, arrive, who have been wintering on their claim. The people around this table, the people in this community, are people who reacted with wisdom and hard work to the stresses of the winter. (Mr. Foster and Mr. Loftus are not here, for instance.) The book ends with song, as all the books do. Pa’s frostbitten hands have healed enough to play the fiddle, and he brings it out. But this time it’s not a wistful lullaby. The theme of the book is that your fate is your own look-out, so the song accompanies it:
Then what is the use of repining/ For where there’s a will there’s a way/ And tomorrow the sun may be shining/ Although it is cloudy today.
(I’d write out all the verses, which strongly rebuke whiners and cowards, but you can go read them yourself.)
This book does not have a simple message. I’ve heard over and over again that Wilder writes about a single theme — that she’s racist, for instance, or that she writes about an independent family who won’t be “beholden” to others, or that she’s anti-statist — but these books are far more complex than that, both in terms of contradictory opinions within them and in terms of craftsmanship. There are individual chapters here that absolutely convey the terror of the blizzard, such as the one where Laura and Carrie are almost lost; there are others where Wilder conveys the numb, hungry boredom of waiting in the cold for a blizzard to be over, and the sense that the weather is almost personal. I appreciate the skill of the novelist, as much as I appreciate reading with my son.