The Long Winter: A Book Review

 

long winter

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!

The Judi and Robin Excellent Adventure ~ 2

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Our first full day in Canada was marked by contrasts:

On an early morning walk, I scoped out a bakery (un boulangerie, for Gamache fans!), to which we later returned for crepes that practically melted away.

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We spent the morning walking — and carriage riding — to take in the sights and history of Old Quebec.  The Jesuits were here, arriving in French Acadia in 1609 and establishing a seminary near Quebec City in 1636.  If you have read any of the history of the early Jesuits in New France, you know that often it did not go well for them at the hands of the Iroquois and Huron nations, but in the long run things did not go well for the First Nations at the hands of the French and English.

The Ursulines, who arrived in southwest Ohio in 1845 to found my first boarding school, showed up in Quebec in 1639, where they founded the first western institution of higher learning for women in North America.  When I was an eighth grader at the School of the Brown County Ursulines, nuns and girls alike headed to Montreal for the World’s Fair ~ Expo ’67 ~ and then on to Quebec City, where we stayed with the Ursulines.  This trip, there was no time to do more than take a quick look around.  One of many reasons to return ~ to linger all day over Ursuline history!

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As we wandered the streets of Quebec City, Judi, a city planner, remarked repeatedly on the beauty of the flowers which mark nearly every home and public building, whether business or government.  I have thought of her observations many times since and, a couple of days ago when I stopped by my son’s apartment,  I could not help but notice the potential for color in the utilitarian spaces on his street, large apartment buildings lining one side and older homes with porches the other.  Not a garden or window box in sight.  Quebec City is home to narrow streets and adjoining townhouses and apartments, but color greets you at every corner.

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Everywhere, beauty and elegance:

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And, although Quebec is a deeply Catholic province, the Reformers have been here as well!

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Too late to plan a meet-up, we discovered that the Presbyterian St. Andrew’s, dedicated in 1810 but originating with Scots Highlanders fify years earlier, and pastored by a RevGals colleague, was only a block from our hotel!

The city was for the morning; by midday, we were headed north and east, and in the afternoon made our first stop at a provincial park.  The still-overcast skies did not mar its stark beauty:

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And, finally, we reached our destination for the evening, a campground in Riviere-du-Loop!  After a long afternoon of driving, we set up our tents, built a fire, made dinner, cleaned up, and snuggled in for what would be another rainy night.

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Well, one of us snuggled in.  Judi was not quite ready to abandon her laptop technology!  I,, on the other hand, startled at first to discover that our campsite included Wi-Fi, was happy to burrow myself into my sleeping bag and read from my ipad!

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Not quite the Clarendon, but we were warm and dry ~ although that tent platform would prove to be my undoing . . .

 

 

The Judi and Robin Excellent Adventure ~ 1

As of August 18 . . . So far so good . . .  After an uneventful flight from Cleveland to Boston (except for a minor kerfluffle over luggage), Judi picked me up (after a minor kerfluffle pertaining to my exact location), and off we went, driving through New Hampshire and Vermont to Quebec City!  The drive was, of course, longer than anticipated, but the hours of almost nonstop conversation gave us ample opportunity to remember our Northfield (girls’ boarding school) days, and establish that they were not, for either of us, a time of unadulterated happiness and achievement, not by a long shot.

Judi had come as a freshman from a small town and public school in northern New England, and I, sophomore year, from a small town in Ohio and a previous boarding school life.  She, I think, had a better time of it than I did until nearly the end.  She was involved in music, and Northfield had an outstanding music program, whereas my efforts to engage outside the classroom mostly flopped.  As far as our junior and senior years are concerned, our stories differ, but I can say from my vantage point, as I probably already have, that while academically, musically, and athletically outstanding, Northfield was poorly equipped to deal with the emotional challenges of adolescents living far from home.  Carol Gilligan’s work and emphases on girls’ learning styles were far in the future, and I think that most of our counselors were simply graduates of Seven Sisters colleges — brilliant women, no doubt, but with no training in education or psychology or group dynamics.  And to be fair, it was the late 1960s. I have read that the administration and faculty were in something of a state of shock as they sought to respond to the upheavals of that decade, which reached New England prep school campuses nearly as quickly as they did colleges and universities.  All of those factors no doubt influenced our high school experiences.

Back to our trip: as dusk fell, so did torrents of rain.  Clenched-fist driving for Judi at that point. We were both glad that our first night’s lodging was the elegant, art-deco style Hotel Clarendon in the center of Quebec City and not a wilderness campsite!

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Tired, cold, and quickly quite wet, we threw our stuff into the room and ventured out for an excellent dinner at Le Grill Ste-Anne, only a block or two away.  And then we fell asleep quickly, hoping for a glimpse of the city in the morning.

 

When I’m 64 ~ 3

64th

On the plus side: I had a great birthday!  My family arrived and, picnic gear assembled, we headed to our city’s outdoor ampitheatre for dinner on the lawn and an Apollo’s Fire concert of music by Vivaldi.  Apollo’s Fire plays baroque music using period instruments, and Vivaldi is often my favorite composer, so it was a wonderful evening for me.  The last time I heard The Four Seasons performed live,  we were in St. Chappelle in Paris on a simmering summer evening; Saturday evening was as delightful, and a good deal more pleasant insofar as temperatures were concerned.

On the downside, no sooner I had resolved, as I described in my last post, that the future would hold more time for family and friends than . . . it didn’t.  As I opened gifts on Saturday evening before our picnic, I learned that my daughter had spent the previous several days organizing a surprise birthday party for me for the night before!  A party that had been cancelled because I was conducting a funeral that evening. I was crushed when the surprise was inadvertently revealed by my son (who assumed that I must have known by then) ~ I had had NO idea and have always wished that someone would plan a surprise party for me!  Well, as a friend pointed out, I did get my wish  . . .  someone did plan a party.

A few nights later, I missed my book club, a bi-monthly gathering of women friends, because I was en route home from an out-of-state training event.  I am so often flummoxed in my efforts to spend more time on my own relationships, and so disappointed when that happens; I am beginning to see retirement as a necessity more for creating time with those I love than for anything else!

 

Friends

Tonight I am reflecting gratefully upon the presence of friends, friends with whom we share different things in different circumstances.

For me, today . . .

I went to my home church for the Pentecost service, and spent some time before the service  talking politics with two guys with whom I have served in various capacities.  These days, we are all part of a group making occasional visits to our U.S. Senators and Representatives, trying to be present and advocate for justice where we can.

At lunchtime, my husband and I went to a bridal shower of a young couple at whose wedding I will co-officiate in three weeks.  We have known the bride-to-be and her parents since she and our daughter were first graders together, and as families we have weathered some long nights in tandem over the years.  What a joy to see this young woman and her fiancé, whom we are just getting to know, delighting in one another and in their anticipated future.

I spent some time online with a friend trying to help her as she tried to help yet another friend ~ unknown to me, in a distant state, and talking suicide.  By the time we finished talking, the distant friend was headed for a hospital with another friend.  There was nothing joyful about any of that, but there was a sense of knowing what steps to advise someone to take that was oddly satisfying, and the hope that a life may be saved.  If it is, we won’t know, but that’s a good thing.

After dinner my husband I joined friends on a porch to relax and talk for a couple of hours ~ a summer event that has been going on for . . . well, a long time.  Many of us have known one another for nearly thirty years.    We know each other to laugh over the fact that some were itching to get home to the basketball game and others asked, “What game?”

Church friends, Montessori friends, suicide prevention friends, neighborhood friends.  It’s a rich life that we have here.

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