The Long Winter

It has been two weeks since I last posted because I’ve been grading papers and exams for my Western Civilization course. Also, as I write this, it is 21 degrees in Palos Heights, Illinois, where I work at Trinity Christian College. This morning when I got up it was 8 degrees. There is about an inch or so snow on the ground from several days ago. It was an appropriate day to read The Long Winter.

Reading The Long Winter is an intense experience. I remember reading it to my kids and feeling the oppressive weight of the story. In it, the Ingalls family survives the “Hard Winter” of 1880-1881, described in the book as seven months of multiple-day blizzards. These storms cause trains to be unable to reach DeSmet beginning in December. Gradually, Laura, her family, and the other 75-80 people in DeSmet run out of food. They are only saved by the heroic actions of Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland, who drove 20 miles from town in sub-zero weather to buy sixty bushels of a settler’s seed wheat.

The book has perhaps the tightest story of all of the Little House books. During the first chapter, Laura and Pa cut hay and see a muskrat house that is unusually thick, a sign of a hard winter to come. Later in the book, the hay is used to keep the family and their stock alive, as their coal runs out and hay is twisted into sticks for the fire. An Indian also warns of the hard winter to come. The blizzards begin in October and continue until April. We watch as the Ingalls family confronts want and possible starvation. Pa loses weight and is unable to play the fiddle due to fatigue and the cold. Even more striking is the book’s description of the psychological effects of the repeated storms. Pa curses the blizzards, the children are irritable, and Laura shows signs of clinical depression. When the chinook wind blows and melts the snow, the reader shares the characters’ deep feelings of relief.

This volume has many more references to Christianity, God, the church, and religious observance than any of the previous Little House books. For comparison, here is the number of chapters that mention one of these topics (by my count):

Little House in the Big Woods: 2

Farmer Boy: 6

Little House on the Prairie: 2

On the Banks of Plum Creek: 8

By the Shores of Silver Lake: 5

The Long Winter: 13

Another possible comparison is when Christianity, God, the church, or religious observance is first mentioned in the book:

Little House in the Big Woods: Chapter 5

Farmer Boy: Chapter 8

Little House on the Prairie: Chapter 2

On the Banks of Plum Creek: Chapter 21

By the Shores of Silver Lake: Chapter 4

The Long Winter: Chapter 1

Not only are religious themes more present than in previous volumes, but there is a wider variety of references made. In the first chapter, Pa explains to Laura that God tells muskrats when to build houses with thicker walls. Scripture is quoted three different times: Psalm 55:6, Psalm 23, and Proverbs 16:18. Laura’s schoolteacher opens the day by reading Psalm 23. Bedtime prayers are mentioned four different times in the book. To pass the time during a blizzard, the girls have a contest to see how many Bible verses they have memorized. When the mail is anticipated, we are told that Ma looks forward to receiving church papers (probably Christian newspapers). The family receives a letter and later a Christmas barrel from Reverend Alden’s church in Minnesota. Carrie gazes at a Sunday school card with a picture of the Good Shepherd. Laura and Mary pray for the safety of Almanzo and Cap on their mission of mercy. The family sings portions of at least ten different hymns. Finally, at the end of the book, as the family sits down to a belated Christmas dinner in April:

Ma looked at Pa and every head bowed.

“Lord, we thank Thee for all Thy bounty!” That was all Pa said, but it seemed to say everything. (364)

 Early in the winter, Laura and Carrie are at the schoolhouse when a blizzard hits. A man from town comes to get the kids safely home but almost leads them onto the prairie. By chance, Laura runs into the last building at the north end of town. Once she is safely home, she muses:

It was wonderful to be there, safe at home, sheltered from the winds and the cold. Laura thought that this must be a little bit like Heaven, where the weary are at rest. She could not imagine that Heaven was better than being where she was, slowly growing warm and comfortable. (227)

In other words, while the earlier books make nods to the church and Christianity, The Long Winter is bathed in references to Christianity and religious imagery.

One might advance several theories for why this is. Perhaps Laura’s recollections of the role of Christianity in her life grow more extensive as she wrote about events when she was older. Maybe it is because, like many humans, we are more likely to reach out to God when hard times and suffering face us. There might be other reasons.

As in previous books, what is left out is as interesting as what is put in. The name of Jesus still does not appear in the book, although Carrie’s card is obviously of him: “The picture was of the Good Shepherd in His blue and white robes, holding in His arms a snow-white lamb.” (276) Jesus has not been mentioned in any of the first six Little House Books. Also, fascinatingly, when the Christmas Barrel finally arrives and is opened, the chapter does not mention who it came from (i.e. that it came from a church).

In previous weeks I have been able to write this and set it aside 24 hours before posting it. However, I must post today because I am busy the next few days. I apologize for any errors. As always, I welcome comments.

(All page number references are from Volume 2 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)


Author: johnfry2013

Chair, Department of History, Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, IL

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