The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

A series of terrible blizzards hit the town of De Smet in the Dakota Territories where the Ingalls family now resides from October until April. Figuring his family will be safer in town than in the roughly built shanty on his claim, Charles moves the family and their provisions of food and coal into town and Caroline decides the proximity means the Laura and her younger sister, Carrie, can attend school all winter-long.

Conditions deteriorate as snow pills up blocking the train tracks and preventing the supply train from traveling to De Smet, and the Ingalls family are forced to ration their provisions as winter drags on and they wait for Almanzo Wilder and his brother, Royal, to return from their desperate journey into the cold to save the town.

The sixth book in the series is undoubtedly the bleakest in the series with the ever constant threat of starvation hanging over the family’s head. One wrong turn in the blizzard could have cost all of the school children, including Laura and Carrie, their lives; one more refusal on the part of Almanzo to sell his seed wheat could have meant the Ingalls family starved to death. One more day without school or human interaction could have caused the family to go crazy.

Charles and the rest of the men in town forced Loftus, the storekeeper, to “see reason” and sell his dwindling storeroom of goods are a risible price. It is never explained exactly how the mob managed to make Loftus see reason, but it was probably more heavy-handed than the way Charles persuaded Almanzo to “sell” his seed wheat – bringing his bucket to Almanzo’s house, pounding on the walls until he found the false wall behind which the seed was stored, and taking some whilst telling Almanzo to set his price. And, at one point, Charles and members of the community rob an emigrant train traveling through the community.

The desperate is certainly understandable and goes to show how human the Ingalls were. Much of Wilder’s series is spent extolling the virtues of the family, particularly Charles, but this book shows that the family was facing a desperate time and, therefore, were desperate in their actions. It is not the romanticized portrayal of life as an American pioneer that permeates the rest of the series.

That said, the ingenuity of the Ingalls family as American pioneers still remains at the forefront of the novel. Who else but the Ingalls would have thought to twist wheat stalks into “logs” in order to create a fuel source? Or, would use the coffee grinder to turn seed wheat into flour?

Book Mentioned:

  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls. The Long Winter. New York: Scholastic, 1968. First published 1940. Print. 335 pgs. ISBN: 9780590488198. Source: Purchased.
Book Cover © Scholastic. Retrieved: June 13, 2014.

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