When I was a little girl, I read and re-read The Little House books so many times that I don’t know how they didn’t disintegrate. In high school, I re-discovered them and, with one of my best boarding school friends, re-read them all again. I probably still have a couple of copies somewhere; we gave them to each other and inscribed the inside covers. In the evenings, hiking back and forth through deep snow to the campus library, we sophisticated (or so we thought) teenagers pretended that we were Laura and Mary Ingalls out on the Dakota prairie.
A couple of weeks ago, I got it into my head to re-read The Long Winter, which I remembered as my favorite of the series, and which was the source for our high school imaginary trips across the Dakota landscape. What a harrowing narrative! It had already occurred to me in high school that much had been left out of the books ~ all of the personal and maternity care for which we use warm bathrooms and hospitals, for instance, and the tremendous sorrow that must have accompanied the leaving behind of household furnishings and personal items and family and friends every time a move was made. But, in fact, The Long Winter, read from an adult viewpoint, does indeed relate the terror of a lonely and isolated winter in which a hundred people or so nearly starved to death in their remote settlement. As a child and teen, I didn’t grasp how close to the edge the Ingalls Family and their neighbors lived, but the book portrays their hardships in chilling detail. Food nearly gone, father and daughters twisting straw to try to create a slow-burning fuel, fear every time someone stepped out the door in the midst of a blizzard, whether to care for animals or to try to cross the street. The near-loss of the entire school of children one blinding afternoon, and the heroism and foolhardiness of two young men crossing the plains in search of a farmer rumored to have wheat stored for spring planting.
The book is structured across the seasons, opening with Pa’s comment, as he and Laura make hay late in the summer, that signs warning of a hard winter coming abound, and closing with the feasting and music that follow the arrival of a train filled with supplies eight months later. Characters from past and future novels in the series re-appear and appear, and the entire book is shaped to reflect pioneer courage and determination in the face of almost insurmountable odds.
As I was reading, I recalled having seen something of a new biography of Laura published in the last couple of years, and so I started reading that as well. It addresses some of the issues that have followed the original publication of the series: Did Laura really write the books, or was her daughter her ghostwriter? Are the books fictional or autobiographical? And what about the casually racist attitudes toward the Native Americans displaced by the European settlers? Stay tuned for another review!