In 1940,Wilder’s literary agent George By,wrote Wilder to tell her that he had sat up
until two o’clock in the morning reading the manuscript for’The Long Winter,’
and then had trouble going to sleep for thinking of the plight of the Ingalls family and that awful winter.
The book was published later in 1940 to critical acclaim.
For sheer gallantry,the story can’t be beat.It puts iron into the imagination.And full disclosure here’The Long Winter’ is the
book I most admire in the series,
for its artistry,
and power;that imaginative iron.
I didn’t always feel this way about’The Long Winter.’
When I first read it as a nine or ten-year-old,I assumed Wilder’s descriptions of blizzards were exaggerated in the
same way my family exaggerated Ozark stories about tornadoes,copperhead snakes,and those
giant catfish that inevitably got away.
I mean,who could believe this:
“They could barely walk in the beating,whirling wind.The school house had disappeared.They could see nothing but swirling
whiteness and snow and then a glimpse of each other disappearing like shadows.”
Sure we had blizzards in the Ozarks of my childhood,but I didn’t quite believe that Laura could see nothing but swirling
whiteness and snow.
And then,when I was in my 20s,I moved to South Dakota and experienced my first prairie blizzard.It stretched over two days.
I was warm and safe in my apartment,but a driver stranded on the interstate between Sioux Falls,South Dakota and Sioux City,Iowa
and left his car.
His frozen body was found not far away,
after that cold and swirling whiteness had relented.
My respect for Wilder as a realistic writer about the natural world
‘The Long Winter’ wasn’t hyperbole.
It wasn’t adventure fantasy.It was indeed historical fiction,as we’ll see.And as I began to write fiction myself,I also
realize that’The Long Winter’ had an almost flawless
The story follows a perfect arc.
More about this later.
But for Wilder,’The Long Winter’ proved to be an extremely challenging imaginative process.
As she wrote George By:
“It has been rather trying,living it all over again as I did in the writing of it.
And I am glad it is finished.”But it wasn’t just the memories that made the writing of’The Long Winter’difficult for Wilder.
It was the storyline itself.
“It is rather a dark picture,not so much sweetness and light as the other books,”she wrote her daughter Rose Wilder Lane.
In fact,the working title for the book was’The Hard Winter.’
Both Wilder and Lane thought of the manuscript this way.So,how to shape an essentially depressing and harrowing experience
into a novel for young adults?
And how to develop a plot that would keep readers turning the page through one dark and dreary blizzard
Wilder struggled to find her way through the story,and in a moment of creative frustration she wrote Lane:
“Here is what is bothering me and holding me up.I can’t seem to find a plot or a pattern, as you call it.There seems to be nothing to
it,only struggle to live through the winter until spring comes again.”
This is,of course,
all they did.
But is it strong enough,or can it be made strong enough,to supply the necessary thread running through the book?
Wilder went on in the letter to outline various plot possibilities,but came back to the same issue unsatisfied
with her own preliminary ideas.
But where is the plot in ‘The Hard Winter’?
Lane offered several ideas,including a plot point that came directly from’Pioneer Girl.’
The real Ingalls family hadn’t spent the hard winter alone in Charles Ingalls’ building in town.
They had shared it with a young couple,whose families had essentially banished them to Dakota territory when she became pregnant.
Lane’s suggestion prompted Wilder to explain the circumstances more fully:
“George Masters is a clerk on the railroad work west of town.When we moved to town he wanted Maggie to come west and board
with us,so she would be near him until the work stopped when they could go east.
When Maggie came,Ma saw she would soon have a baby,much too soon after the time she was married.
Maggie didn’t want the baby to be born at her folks’ and disgrace them.
George’s folks were mad because he married her,
and wouldn’t have her there.
Maggie had always been a nice girl,and Ma was sorry for her and let her stay.
The baby was born before winter came.
Work stopped and George came.We thought they were leaving,but George put it off.
The winter set in and caught them.
There was nowhere else they could stay.Every house was full,and Pa couldn’t put them out in the street.”
Lane recognized that there was inherent drama in the situation that could enliven the plot of’The Hard Winter.’
In fact,Caroline Ingalls herself,along with Mrs.Garland,Cap’s mother,had delivered the Masters’baby in the Ingalls’
But Wilder disagreed.Although she had to admit the presence of the Masters family could add tension and conflict to the
fictional family ‘s experiences during the hard winter.
“George paid Maggie’s board while he was working.Afterward he paid nothing.
He never went with Pa for a load of hay. He never twisted any.
He just sat.
He would’ve done differently or I’d have thrown him out,but Pa wouldn’t.Sweet Charity!”But for Wilder,this kind of conflict wasn’t
essential to the plot of”The Hard Winter.”
But Lane persisted.”If not the Masters,then perhaps the fictional family could invite the Boasts
to join them
for the hard winter.”Still Wilder disagreed.
“We can’t have anyone living with us,”she argued.
If she substituted the Boasts for the Masters,Wilder noted,the point of the situation would be blunted .”Given the Boasts’
generous characters,Mr. Boast would help haul hay,and he would help twist it.
He would help grind wheat.Mrs. Boast would leave the baby in a chair by the fire and help.”
Wilder opted once again for a more mythic situation,and a basic plot line for the fictional Ingalls family in the book.
It would spoil the story to add the Masters or the Boasts to’The Hard Winter.’
The Ingalls family must be alone.Still,at least initially,Wilder did accept one of Lane’s suggestions.
“I am beginning’Hard Winter’ as you suggested,with the strangeness of the geese not stopping at the lake.”
Ultimately,however,Wilder modified even this idea.
In the final draft of the novel,Pa indeed notices the unusual patterns of migratory birds that fall.
He tells the family:
Not a goose nor a duck on the lake.None in the slough.
Not one in sight.They’re flying high above the clouds,
I could hear them calling.
Caroline,every kind of bird is going south as fast and as high as it can fly.
All of them,
But this isn’t the opening scene in the book.
This scene takes place toward the end of chapter two.Instead,the final draft of the novel begins with a different and more
compelling opening,one that is consistent with Wilder ‘s original observation,
about how people lived through the hard winter simply waiting out the season.
And yet,what appears to be a simple solution,the passage of time
and the turning of the seasons,
gives’The Long Winter’a mythic and indeed,almost perfect,story arc.The novel begins in a hay field on a hot summer day.
Who could imagine the cold to follow?And that the hay Laura and Paul were cutting
would save their lives?
But also in this opening chapter,Wilder provides the first hint of conflict:
when Laura finds a muskrat house in the big slough.
“Pa was shaking his head.’We’re going to have a hard winter,’he said,not liking the prospect.
‘How do you know?’Laura asked in surprise.
‘The colder the winter will be,the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses,’Pa told her.’I never saw a heavier built
muskrat house than this one.'”
Wilder then builds one conflict on top of the next,ratcheting up the tension and conflict and in the process creating a
a rare October blizzard,
a warning from a wise American Indian(more about this later),
a sudden blizzard that strikes while the children are at school,and their struggle to get home safely
a cluster of blizzards that blocks the trains,dwindling supplies of food and fuel,
the threat of starvation or freezing to death.Notice that the biggest threat in the novel comes,as it should,toward the
end of the book:
the Ingalls could quite literally lose their own lives.
Then finally,the novel resolves itself with quick falling action in the last two chapters
waiting for the train to arrive,and
celebrating Christmas in April.
Listen to Wilder’s last lines:”And as they sang,the fear and suffering of the long winter seemed to rise like a dark cloud
and float away on the music.
Spring had come.
The sun was shining and warm,the winds were soft,and the green grass was growing.”
The Ingalls family has gone from light into ever deepening darkness and emerged on the other side,
the end of a long winter into spring time and light.A perfect story arc, a perfect plot.Despite her objections,Wilder did
of course introduce important new characters in’The Long Winter,’
and they added
to the richness of the plot,
as well as providing new insights into Laura’s character.She’s going on 14 when the novel opens,and as most young adults at this age,
is aware of the opposite sex.”Then suddenly,Laura saw one of the boys spring into the air and catch the ball.
He was tall and quick,and he moved as beautifully as a cat.
His yellow hair was sunbleached,almost white,and his eyes shone blue.
They saw Laura and opened wide.Then a flashing grin lighted up his whole face
and he threw the ball to her.
Without thinking,Laura leaps to catch it,and Cap looks around at the other boys in the schoolyard and says,
‘She’s as good as any of us.'”
Instantly there’s a bond between them,and Cap behaves heroically throughout the rest of the novel.
The real Cap Garland,Oscar Edmund Garland,was just two years older than Wilder. He was 15 in the autumn of 1880 when she
first met him.
In ‘Pioneer Girl,’Wilder wrote that she always noticed Cap during church services,and wished he would take her for a ride in
His fictional counterpart goes on to become an important secondary character throughout the rest of the series.
And another confession:when I first read’The Long Winter’ as a kid,I assumed Cap would become Laura’s beau,
perhaps because I hadn’t yet read’Farmer Boy.’
Which brings me to,of course,Almanzo Wilder,who emerges as an important character in this book, and the remaining two books in the series.
Of course,readers of the entire series up to this point have become reacquainted with Almanzo’By the Shores of Silver Lake,’
where he makes a brief,yet dramatic appearance with his beautiful team of morgans.
The horses catch Laura’s eye.
They drew a light wagon.
A young man stood up in the wagon driving,and a taller man stood behind him with a hand on his shoulders.
Pa identifies the pair as’The Wilder Boys.'”Almanzo’s driving and that’s his brother Royal with him.
They’ve taken up claims north of town,and they’ve got the finest
horses in the whole country.
By George,you seldom see a team like that.”
Pa admires the horses and by extension the men driving them,making Almanzo and Royal even more worthy of Laura’s attention.
In the intervening years between’Farmer Boy’and’By the Shores of Silver Lake,’the real Wilder clan had moved west and settled in southeastern
Minnesota in the mid- 1870s.
The real Almanzo,his brother Royal,and their sister Eliza Jane Wilder,arrived in Dakota territory in 1879 and filed
adjoining claims on land about a mile north and west of De Smet.
They spent the winter of 1879-1880,when the Ingalls lived in the surveyor’s house,
back in Minnesota,
then returned to Dakota Territory in the spring of 1880.
According to the 1880 federal census,Eliza Jane,Royal,and Almanzo,were farmers living in Kingsbury County.
But Almanzo, who was 23 in 1880,a full ten years older than Laura Ingalls,appears on the 1880 federal census twice.
He was also boarding with a C.D.Peck in Beadle County,just west of Kingsbury County in De Smet,
where he worked as a laborer in the railroad camp.
His brother Royal was 33 in 1880.
He opened a feed store in De Smet that year.
It was right next door to the real Fuller’s Hardware.
We’ll discuss their sister Eliza Jane
in the class.
Wilder herself wasn’t sure how to reintroduce Almanzo’s character to readers in’The Long Winter,’
nor was she certain about how to bring Almanzo and Laura together in this book,
although she felt it was necessary.
“Laura and Almanzo are to meet when the blizzard closes the school,”she wrote Lane.
“You remember?When the school wouldn’t follow Cap Garland and nearly got lost?
I don’t know how it will work out,but I’m gonna have Laura go with Almanzo to town.”
Wilder,however,abandoned this idea.
In the final version of’The Long Winter,’Laura and Almanzo meet in a hayfield,reinforcing his connection to the land,and hers.
The scene is entirely fictional.
“A strange wagon stood there there,and on its rack was an enormous load of hay.
On the high top load,up against the blinding sky,
a boy was lying.
He lay on his stomach,his chin on his hands and feet in the air.
The strange man [Royal Wilder]lifted up a huge fork full of hay and pitched it onto the boy.It buried him,and he scrambled up out
of it laughing and shaking hay off his head and his shoulders.
He had black hair and blue eyes,and his face and his arms were sunburned brown.”
The boy,his brother called him Manzo in this scene,stands high against the sky
on the hay wagon and he calls down to Laura who stands with Carrie,lost in the tall grasses of the Big Slough.
Notice that Wilder describes Almanzo as a boy in this passage.She shaved a few years off Almanzo’s age,
worried perhaps that the real tenure difference in their ages would be unsettling or unappealing to young readers.
As the scene progresses,Laura wants to run away and hide from the Wilder boys,but she stands her ground and talks to Manzo.
He points Laura and Carrie in the right direction toward Pa’s hayfield,and in effect,
rescues the girls.
“Then his blue eyes twinkled down at Laura
as if he had known her
a long time.”
Almanzo reappears in the scene with the American Indian man in Hawthorne’s store,
a transitional scene that we’ll discuss in more detail in our next lecture.
But for now I’ll just say this:Wilder writes this scene in third person objective,not third person limited from Laura’s perspective.
The scene belongs to Pa and Almanzo.It
moves out of Laura’s direct experience,and prepares readers for an even bigger shift in point of view later in the novel,
in the chapter “Seed Wheat,”
when Wilder writes entirely from Almanzo’s point of view.
“In the back room behind the feed store,Almanzo was busy.He had taken saddles,harness,and clothes from the end wall and piled them on the bed.
He had pushed the table against the cupboard,and
in the cleared space,he had set a chair for a sawhorse.”
This is a major shift in point of view,and subtly signal to readers that Almanzo is in fact a more important new
character than even Cap Garland.
The unfolding action here revolves around Almanzo,not Laura or even Pa.
It introduces readers to a more masculine world.Even the dialogue sounds masculine,a bit rougher around the edges.
“‘Roy,’he said after a while,’whittle me a plug to fit this knothole, will you?I want to get this job done before chore time.’
Royal came to look at the knothole.
He rounded it with his knife,and chose a piece of wood that he would make a plug to fit.
‘If prices go up like you say,you’re a fool not to sell your wheat,’he remarked.
‘They’ll have the train running before spring.You can buy your seed back and make a profit like I’m figuring on doing.’
‘You said that before,’
Almanzo reminded him.
‘I’d rather be sure than sorry.
You don’t know when the train’ll be running,and you don’t know they’ll ship in seed wheat before April.’
‘Nothing sure but death and taxes,’said Royal.’Seed time’s pretty sure to come around,’Almanzo said,
‘and good seed makes a good crop.'”
Of course,a later shift to Almanzo’s point of view places readers directly in the middle of the most heroic scene in
‘The Long Winter,’when Almanzo and Cap Garland set out between blizzards to find a homesteader with a hoarde of seed wheat.
They struggle against the elements,against time,against distance,and ultimately against a four-day blizzard which
threatens to strike before they get their load back to town.
“Almanzo thought that perhaps they had crossed the neck of Big Slough.
He could not be sure where they were.
He could Prince in the slowly moving bulk of the loaded sled.
Beyond them the darkness was like a mist,thickening over a flat white world.
Stars twinkled far away around part of its rim.
Before him,the black storm climbed rapidly up the sky
and in silence destroyed the stars.”
The episode belongs to Almanzo,not Laura.The scene is factual,as Manly did go after the wheat to feed the town,risking his life.
He got it before anyone went hungry,
and he made this epic journey with Cap Garland.
She went on to explain what she called the’stoicism of the people,’their acceptance of hardship and their occasional bravery,
which defined her view of Almanzo and Cap.
“Living with danger day after day people became accustomed to it.They take things as they come,without much thought about it
and no fuss,
and in a casual way.”
So this scene,and its emphasis on how Almanzo,was always an essential part of Wilder’s vision of the book.
But switching point of view,relating the unfolding action from Almanzo’s perspective
rather than Laura’s,
makes him more heroic
and ultimately more worthy of Laura.
I do want to add just one more observation about the characters of Almanzo and Cap.
Despite the shifting point of view,which subtly conveys to readers Almanzo’s relative importance over Cap,
both characters behave heroically,
and this sets up a certain amount of tension between the text and the reader:which one of these two amazing young men will
claim Laura’s heart?
The romantic intrigue is subtle,never overwhelming the novel’s harrowing scenes of hardship and survival,
something we’ll talk more about in the next lecture.
And one last observation about Wilder’s switch in point of view in’The Long Winter’:
it does,in fact,reinforce her portrait of the Ingalls family’s struggle for survival.
It allows readers to see the Ingalls family and their suffering more objectively.
Wilder wrote Lane that”we were shorter of food than anyone.”
Yet within the context of the novel,the fictional family couldn’t have known this.Certainly Laura wouldn’t have known this
at the time,nor would she have recognized the gradual physical toll their lack of food was exacting on them.
Almanzo would,because he was an outsider who saw Charles Ingalls sporadically that winter.
From him we get a riveting description of Pa that Laura’s character could never have credibly delivered.
“‘I think there’s folks in this town that are starving,’
‘I said starving.Take Ingalls.There’s six in his family.You notice his eyes?And how thin he was?'”Almanzo lets readers see Pa as others
outside the Ingalls family saw him,
and by extension,illustrates how desperate and dire the family’s circumstances really were.
Wilder’s plot for’The Long Winter,’its new characters,and her strategic shifts in point of view served the book’s major
themes of hardship and survival.
This is a tough,even edgy book for the emerging young adult market
Wilder’s editor at Harper&Brothers worried about the title Wilder proposed:
‘A Hard Winter.’
She suggested a subtle change in the title,
to’The Long Winter.’Wilder and Lane weren’t happy with the change.The book was about hardship,suffering,sacrifice,and
‘The Hard Winter’ described the book’s story and themes much more accurately.
As Rose Wilder Lane wrote George Bye:
“My mother has written a hard book about the hard winter,and I think an attempt to conceal that fact from the book’s
readers is worse than futile.
My God if’The Hard Winter’as a title is too depressing,what about the book?”
As we’ll see in the next lecture,Wilder’s themes in the book took the’Little House’series and their characters into new
emotional territory,and tested the Ingalls family as they’ve never been tested before.
As Wilder wrote in’Pioneer Girl’:
“We would lie in our beds those nights,
listening to the wind howl and shriek while the house rocked with the force of it and snow sifted in around the windows
and through the nail holes.
It is times like this
that test people.”
In 1932,eight years before’The Long Winter’ was published,Rose Wilder Lane sent her literary agent George Bye a
synopsis for a new novel she proposed to write.It working title was
‘The Hard Winter.’
She explained,”There was a lot of fun through it all.Everybody starved,but nobody died.”
Lane’s project didn’t go anywhere,and by the time she chose to write about the hard winter of 1880-1881 in her novel’Free Land,’
published in 1938,her approach resembled her mother’s in’both Pioneer Girl’ and eventually’The Long Winter.’
The experience wasn’t fun;
it was hard.A long hard struggle to survive,
a battle against starvation.”That was the beginning of the hard winter,”Lane wrote in ‘Free Land.’
“No such weather has been known since then.At the time,men spoke as if that country intended to drive out or kill the
settlers who would come into it.
They never felt that the blizzard quit.It paused only to gather strength for greater violence.”
In’Pioneer Girl,’Wilder herself described the hard winter as a”malignant power of destruction,wreaking havoc as long as
possible,and pausing for breath to go on with the work.Or as Pa forcibly put it,’The blizzard just let go to spit on its
hands.'”As you can see here,Wilder personifies the blizzard,and in her own way so did Lane.
The blizzard”paused only to gather strength for greater violence.”In’The Long Winter,’Wilder takes this personification to
a new level.
The long winter itself becomes a kind of character in the novel.
It is Laura’s antagonist.
“Sometimes in the night,half awake and cold,Laura half-dreamed that the roof was scoured thin.
Horribly the great blizzard,large as the sky,bent over it and scoured with an enormous invisible cloth,round and round in the
till a whole wore through and squealing,chuckling,laughing a deep Ha!Ha!the blizzard whirled in.
Barely in time to save herself,Laura jumped awake.
Then,she did not dare to sleep again.She lay still and small in the dark,
and all around her the black darkness of night,that had always been restful and kind to her,
was now a horror.
She had never been afraid of the dark.’I am not afraid of the dark,’she said to herself over and over,but she felt that the
dark would catch her with claws and teeth if it could hear her move or breathe.
Inside the walls,under the roof,where the nails were clumps of frost,even under the covers where she huddled,the dark was
crouched and listening.”In previous novels,as we’ve seen,Wilder depicted the natural world as ambivalent,unconcerned with
Here in’The Long Winter,’the natural world,at least from her characters’ perspectives,
is bent on destroying human life.The Ingalls family takes this threat very personally,and as the winter progresses Laura
and Pa in particular rage against it.
Toward the end of the novel,cold and weak,facing the prospect of starvation,a raging four-day blizzard strikes.”Pa rose
with a deep breath.’Well,here it is again.’
Then suddenly he shook his clenched fist at the northwest.’Howl!Blast you! Howl!’ he shouted.’We’re all here safe! You can’t get
at us!You’ve tried all winter but we’ll beat you yet!We’ll be right here when spring comes!’
‘Charles, Charles,’Ma said soothingly.’It is only a blizzard.We’re used to them.’Pa dropped back in his chair.After a
minute he said,’That was foolish,Caroline.Seemed for a minute like the wind was something alive,something
trying to get at us.
It does seem so sometimes.'”
This personification of the natural world reflects an idea Wilder has touched on in earlier novels in the series,but in’The
Long Winter’ she refines and amplifies it.
And that idea relates both to Laura and Pa’s instinctive understanding of the West and the natural world it embodies.
Pa reads the signs nature provides that a hard winter is coming:
that muskrat house in the opening chapters,the geese flying over Silver Lake in Chapter Two.
Laura too has an affinity for the natural world,
when it is destructive.”Laura loved the beautiful world.She knew that the bitter frost had killed the hay in the garden,
the tangled tomato vines with their red and green tomatoes,and the pumpkin vines holding their broad leaves of the green
were all glittering bright in frost over
the broken, frosty sod.
The sod cornstalks and long leaves were white.
The frost had killed them.It would leave every living green thing dead. But the frost
was beautiful.”Laura and Pa’s affinity for the natural world makes them feel its ambivalence and heartlessness more keenly.
They understand its power and fury far better than Ma or Mary.
Laura and Pa recognized more fully just how vulnerable the family is to the winter’s malignant power to destroy human
I want to come back to this point in a moment,but first another observation about Wilder’s depiction of the natural world in
‘The Long Winter.’
Remember the scene from’By the Shores of Silver Lake’ when Big Jerry and his white horse ride west into the sun?
It was an archetypal moment
“Somehow that moment,when the beautiful free pony and the wild man rode into the sun
It was Laura’s simultaneous introduction to the West,and her farewell,because she,her family,and ultimately the hundreds
of pioneers streaming into Dakota Territory,were setting out to tame it.
In’The Long Winter,’the natural world,the West,seems to launch an assault on humanity,
one last epic struggle to shake off civilization.
And in fact,the settlers themselves have made themselves more vulnerable
to nature’s ambivalence.
The settlers in Dakota Territory during the winter of 1880 and 1881 aren’t independent and self-sufficient pioneers.
they depend on technology:
the railroad,to deliver the food,fuel,and supplies they need to survive.
In the opening chapter of’The Long Winter,’Pa tells Laura:”We’re humans and God created us free.
That means we gotta take care of ourselves.”
But technology betrays the little town of De Smet.It’s virtually helpless against the malignant power of the West,at least
during the hard winter.
In the chapter”Alone”when Pa learns that there will be no more trains until spring,he says:
“‘The snow strikes like buckshot.
And listen to that wind howl!’
‘I suppose this is blocking the trains?’Ma said.
‘Well we’ve lived without a railroad,’Pa answered cheerfully,but he gave Ma the look that warned her to say no more about it
while the girls were listening.”
Laura,however,knows that look well and what it means.At the end of the chapter she lies awake considering the town’s
isolation and powerlessness.
“A lamp could shine out to the blackest darkness and a shout could be heard a long way,but no light and no cry could reach
through a storm that had wild voices and an unnatural light of its own.
The blankets were warm and Laura was no longer cold,but she shivered.”
What saves the Ingalls family and the town from starvation of course,isn’t technology,but the raw courage of two young
men,relying on their instincts,honor, and a pair of smart strong horses.
“So they went on,running,riding,and thumping their chests and running again,while the horses trotted briskly.
‘How long do we keep this up?’Cap shouted once,joking.’Until we find wheat,or hell freezes!’Almanzo answered.”
The town is ill prepared for what’s ahead from the very beginning.In the chapter”Indian Warning,”Wilder again sets up a
conflict between the natural world,represented by a very old Indian,
and civilization,the men gathered around the counter
in Mr.Hawthorne’s store.
The illustrations in the Garth Williams edition of the’The Long Winter’ illustrates this point very clearly.
The Indian stands apart from the men gathered at the store.
You see all the supplies civilization can furnish through the railroad.Of course,all these supplies will soon be gone
and,for the length of the hard winter,will be irreplaceable.
The Indian himself represents the wisdom of the untamed West.
“His brown face was scarred and deep wrinkles and shriveled on the bones but he stood tall and straight.His eyes were
bright and sharp.
Behind him the sun was shining on the dusty street,and an Indian pony stood there waiting.”
He delivers his warning and only Pa exchanges a word with him.
When he leaves,the men are confused,unsure of how seriously they should heed his warning.
“‘You suppose the old geezer knows what he’s talking about?’
Royal wanted to know.
No one could answer that.”But Pa,because of his inherent affinity with the natural world and the real West represented
by the old Indian,interprets the message very clearly for the men gathered around the counter in the store
and heeds the old Indian’s warning.
When Pa gets home he tells Ma and the girls:
“‘We’re moving to town as quick as we can.I’ve got to haul in hay first for the stock.I can haul one load before dark if I hustle.'”
This episode is of course based on an event Wilder remembered from her childhood.She wrote about it in’Pioneer Girl.’ To
contemporary readers,the scene in both the autobiography and’The Long Winter’ may appear as a dated and patronizing portrayal
of an American Indian man.
He uses a stereotypical phrase,
“heap big snow”to convey his warning,
along with an improvised sign language.
And in the novel,her description of him,with his blanket,bare brown arms,and scalp lock seems more consistent with the
Osage men she remembered from her childhood,
than the Dakota,Lakota,and Nakota men living in nearby reservations in Dakota Territory.
Yet Pa’s respect for the old American Indian man underscores the wisdom and intelligence he offers white settlers
in De Smet,and I think it’s significant that like Big Jerry in’By the Shores of Silver Lake,’
the old Indian man in ‘The Long Winter’ makes a mythic exit from the story.
“He walked out of the store to his waiting pony and rode away toward the West.”It is interesting to note that an early
history of Dakota Territory published in 1915,just over 30 years after the hard winter,
also refers to American Indian perspectives about the winter of 1880
“There were intelligent Indians then living at the Yankton Agency in southeastern Dakota Territory
who had been born in this upper Missouri Valley 75 and 80 years prior to the event
(the first blizzard during the hard winter)
who could recall no occurrence of such a wintry visitation during October.”
Many early historical sources reinforced Wilder’s depictions of events in’The Long Winter.’
Kingsbury’s history,for example,reports that the first blizzard of October 1880
lasted for 24 hours and that”livestock suffered severely,
thousands of heads being out on the prairies at that time.”
He also notes that”tens of thousands of range cattle perished,”an image that reinforces the scene in’The Long Winter’when Pa releases
the motionless cattle,their heads frozen over with ice and snow.
This episode too comes directly out of Wilder’s autobiography.
The historical record also supports Wilder’s depiction of the long winter itself:
“storm after storm of the most damaging and disheartening characters was the rule through the next five months during the
winter of 1880-1881.”
Trains became snowbound and then eventually stopped running altogether.A surviving fragment from the’Kingsbury County News’
published in De Smet on February 24, 1881 reads:
“The leading question is,when shall we have a train from the East?”
Pioneer historian George Kingsbury also observed that”Train loads of fuel were on the tracks bound for Dakota,but snowbound
and unable to move;and it was later claimed that some trains,thus laden,lay for months buried in drifts on side tracks
and that human power was inadequate to move them.”
Kingsbury adds the railroad had not”yet shipped in the winter supply of coal or other fuel,so that this essential was
one of the earliest necessities of life that was discovered to be lacking.”
In fact,the citizens of De Smet did turn to twisting hay for fuel.
That same fragment from the’Kingsbury County News’noted on February 24, 1884 that:
“Hay fire is all the rage now in town.”
‘The Long Winter’ moves into its darkest and most hopeless scenes as Laura twists hay or mills the family’s dwindling
in the coffee grinder.
The days are dark and dreary;the family subsists on Ma’s sourdough brown bread.
Reality for Laura has become something of a nightmare.
“Winter had lasted so long that it seemed it would never end.
It seemed they would never really wake up.
In the morning Laura got out of bed into the cold.She dressed downstairs by the fire that Pa had kindled before he went to
They ate their coarse brown bread.Then all day long she and Ma and Mary ground wheat and twisted hay as fast as they could.
The fire must not go out.
It was very cold.
They ate some coarse brown bread.
Then Laura crawled into the cold bed and shivered until she got warm enough to sleep.
Next morning she got out of bed into the cold,but she did not ever feel awake.She felt beaten by the cold and the storms.
She knew she was dull and stupid,but she could not wake up.”This dreamlike quality pervades the entire book.
Think of how often a chapter ends with Laura drifting off to sleep,listening to the wind howl,or worrying about their
dwindling supply of food and fuel.
“Huddled close together and shivering under the covers they listened to it.
Laura thought of the lost and lonely houses,each one alone and blind and cowering in the fury of the storm.
There were houses in town,but not even a light from one of them could reach another.
The town was all alone on the frozen,endless prairie,where snow drifted and winds howled and the whirling blizzard put
out the stars and the sun.
Laura tried to think of the good brown smell and taste of the beef for dinner tomorrow,
but she could not forget that now the houses in the town would be all alone until spring.
There was half a bushel of wheat that they could grind to make flour and now there were a few potatoes,but nothing more to eat
until the train came.The wheat and the potatoes were not enough.”In the earliest chapters of’The Long Winter,’this dreamy
quality seems almost benign.
But in the closing chapters,Wilder depicts a waking nightmare world that is numbing,dull,and unsatisfying.
In the chapter”Cold and Dark,”even Pa’s attempts to read from his big green book sends Laura into a waking nightmare.
“Laura tried to listen but she felt stupid and numb.Pa’s voice slid away into the ceaseless noise of the storm.
She felt that the blizzard must stop before she could do anything,before she could even listen or think
but it would never stop.It had been blowing forever.She was tired.
She was tired of the cold and the dark,tired of brown bread and potatoes,tired of twisting hay and grinding wheat,filling the
stove and washing dishes and making beds and going to sleep and waking up.
She was tired of the blizzard winds.
There was no tune in them anymore,only confusion of sound
beating on her ears.”It becomes hard for Laura to distinguish reality from dream,
because reality has become a nightmare.
The trancelike reality through which the fictional Ingalls family moved in’The Long Winter’ is unique to this book,
and it appears to be a deliberate stylistic device,a technique that brings readers closer to the emotional and physical
experiences of starvation
and freezing to death.
A dreamy,trancelike state is a symptom often associated with both.
Even after Almanzo and Cap bring back the seed wheat,the fictional Ingalls family struggles with hunger and cold.
“There was nothing in the world but cold and dark and work and coarse brown bread and winds blowing.The storm was always
there,outside the walls,waiting sometimes,then pouncing,shaking the house,roaring,snarling,and screaming in rage.”
This dreamlike quality,relayed primarily through Laura and Pa,makes’The Long Winter’ such an artistic achievement.It gives
the novel its creative and narrative strength,
and makes the fictional family’s experiences more real and tangible.
It communicates the feelings of cold and hunger in a credible and compelling way.
At the end of’The Long Winter’ it’s clear that Laura isn’t a child anymore,that she’s a young woman,
who has survived a harrowing experience and emerged on the other side
more capable,and yet ever hopeful.
Remember that most young adult novels,even those that deal with gritty,difficult,and deadly things,usually end with a
feeling of hope,
and that’s certainly true of’The Long Winter.’
Although the novel ends with a Christmas celebration in May and Pa’s ability to once again play the fiddle,
the emotional ending comes a bit earlier,in the chapter entitled”It Can’t Beat Us.”
Laura wakes up in the middle of the night,and the nightmare-blizzard world finally ends:
“She sprang up in bed and called aloud, ‘Pa! Pa! The chinook is blowing!’
The chinook was blowing.Spring had come.The blizzard had given up;it was driven back to the north.Blissfully Laura
stretched out in bed;she put both arms on top of the quilts and they were not very cold.She listened to the blowing wind
and dripping eaves and she knew that in the other room Pa was lying awake too,listening and glad.
The chinook, the wind of spring, was blowing. Winter had ended.”