This winter, the mounds of snow, the icy walks, and seemingly never-ending Nor’easters have reminded me of two famous books. One is the “Winter of Our Discontent” by John Steinbeck. The other is “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Of course, the “Winter of Our Discontent” by Steinbeck doesn't reference snow and ice and storms. Steinbeck’s “Winter” is based on the first lines of Shakespeare’s “Richard III”, a play that eludes to a stormy and metaphorical winter of discontent, contrasted by the analogous splendid summer. The discontent is relevant because of the constant dialogue we’ve all had with ourselves and each other. “I’ve had it with winter!” “Winter makes me sick.” Or “Winter. I’m sooooo done with it.” Discontent might be an understatement.
Yet it is “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder that conjures impressive images of winter. “The Long Winter” is Ingall’s sixth Little House book which is based on the blizzards that rampaged the prairies of South Dakota in 1880-1881. They were painful and long-lasting. It had been a half-century since I’d read it and I’ve never been able to forget the blizzards, blowing snow, howling winds, and an emptying household pantry. I revived my memory last month and experienced winter in its prairie form again.
This winter, Gerry and I have become a bit snow blind. By that, I mean, that we’ve nearly tried to ignore the forecasts and 24/7 news alerts on television, radio and the Internet. Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately because I have the safety of a library to look after), our grandson alerts us to the fact that winter has been long, ever-present, and practically a daily event.
The night before an impending storm, 15-year old Colin announces the reality of a coming Nor’easter (or not) at the dinner table. Constantly on alert, checking his iPhone for announcements of a school snow day, we can hardly escape the storm. We answer his wishful thoughts “I can’t imagine having school in the morning” or “they’ll for sure cancel school” with a sometimes unsympathetic response. We say, quite coldly and simply, “you still need to study for that Spanish test”. Certainly, Gerry and I think, everyone will come to their senses and realize that we live in New England! It snows in New England! Get real!
School this year is, inevitably, cancelled. Libraries and other public buildings are closed, and the governor announces that people should work from home. And a storm rages once again.
Laura Ingalls Wilder actually lived “The Long Winter”. She was turning 14 years old when her real Ingalls family lived in a prairie town in South Dakota. Winter started early that year – in October – and lasted seven months through April of 1881. When the family ran out of flour, Laura and her sisters ground wheat in a coffee mill. When they ran out of coal, they twisted hay into stalks that burned in the stove to keep them warm.
Ingalls Wilder’s stories are historical fiction based on the facts of her real life. She took liberties in her writing and she reduced her experiences in some instances and embellished them in others. Her winter was a series of many blizzards interrupted by several days of frigid sunshine and the hope of spring.
Yet, in true-Laura Ingalls Wilder-fashion, the hope held out, a spring thaw arrived and with spring came the train and supplies – food, fuel and mail.
Eight volumes of Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder were published between 1932 and 1943. A ninth volume was published posthumously (“The First Four Years”) in 1971.
The series began with “The Little House in the Big Woods” and it described, fictionally, her life in Pepin, Wisconsin where Laura was born in 1867 (where the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum stands today). “Farmer Boy”, “Little House on the Prairie” and “On the Banks of Plum Creek” were written before 1937. They were followed with “By the Shores of Silver Lake” and “The Long Winter” in 1939 and 1940. The series ended with “Little Town on the Prairie” (1941) and “These Happy Golden Years” (1943).
Laura Ingalls did not publish her first popular book until 1932 when she was over 60 years old when she became well-known as a children’s and young adult author. And it was not until 1954 that the American Library Association honored Ingalls Wilder with the inauguration of a lifetime achievement award for given to authors and illustrators of children’s books. It was first awarded to Ingalls Wilder and has been awarded more than 19 times since.
Many of the Little House books are illustrated by Garth Williams (illustrator of “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little” by EB White.) Those versions are particularly wonderful for sharing with young children. The audio versions on CD are also perfect for children – they sometimes include Pa’s fiddle music performed by Paul Woodiel.
My favorite anthology of the Little House books is a two-volume set (“The Little House Books”) edited by Caroline Fraser and published by The Library of America. It is a lovely set and includes all nine books with some annotations (in note format) and some of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s history, talks and speeches. These books are for the adult reader (they are not illustrated). They are a lovely and quick read in this beautiful format which includes a ribbon bookmark in each of the two volumes.
There are other ways to experience the Little House books. In 2001, Wendy McClure wrote in “The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie”. Somewhat obsessed with the Little House books, McClure shares tales of churning butter and wading in rivers while she investigates the life of Ingalls Wilder in her books.