One of the most popular children’s story series ever penned is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series about growing up in the “western” USA.
Having two older sisters and growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I was subjected to the series (which are mostly oriented toward girls). I admit that I had very little interest in them, until I heard my sister reading aloud from one of the books, The Long Winter.
Our copy was very old, it had a green library binding on it, and somebody had picked it up at a library sale for a penny. When my sister (who writes here under the pen name Mammy) was done with it, I latched onto it and became absolutely fascinated with it. I guess I had a “survival / prepper” mentality even as a child.
While telling a story aimed at children, the book is actually a harrowing tale of people who have very little in the way of preperations (far too little to be living in that climate) figuring out how to get through the winter, doing whatever it takes to survive.
In case you haven’t read the book, I advise you to stop now and go buy a copy and read it. It’s not very long, and adult readers will get through it farily quickly.
If you have read it but it’s been a long time, the following is a synopsis of the book, taken from the WIkipedia article about the book:
On a hot August day in the 1880s, at the Ingalls’ homestead in Dakota Territory, Laura offers to help Pa stack hay to feed their stock in the winter. As they work, she notices a muskrat den in the nearby Big Slough. Upon inspecting it, Pa notes that its walls are the thickest he has ever seen and fears the upcoming winter will be a hard one.
In mid-October, the Ingalls wake to an unusually early blizzard howling around their poorly insulated claim shanty. Soon afterward, Pa receives another warning from an unexpected source: an old Native American man comes to the general store in town to warn the white settlers that there will be seven months of blizzards. Pa decides to move his family into his store building in town for the winter.
In town, Laura attends school with her younger sister, Carrie, until the weather becomes too unpredictable to permit them to walk to and from the school building, and coal too scarce to keep it heated. Blizzard after blizzard sweeps through the town over the next few months. Food and fuel become scarce and expensive, as the town depends on the railroad to bring supplies but the frequent blizzards prevent trains from getting through. Eventually, the railroad company suspends all efforts to dig out the trains that are snowed in at Tracy, stranding the town until spring.
With no more coal or wood, the Ingalls learn to use twisted hay for fuel. For weeks, they subsist on just a little bit of food. As even this meager food runs out, Laura’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder, and his friend, Cap Garland, hear rumors that a settler raised wheat at a claim twenty miles from town. They risk their lives to bring sixty bushels of it to the starving townspeople – enough to last the rest of the winter.
As predicted, the blizzards continue for seven months. Finally, the spring thaw comes and trains begin running again, bringing the Ingalls their long-delayed Christmas barrel from Reverend Alden, containing clothes, presents, and a Christmas turkey. With the long winter finally over, they enjoy their long-delayed Christmas celebration in May.
Spice and I listened to an audiobook version of it during a recent long road trip, and since neither of us had read the book in 40 years, it was interesting to see what we remembered and what we didn’t.
As I am sure most people have noted, if you re-read children’s books from your youth as an adult, you often catch a lot of “things for adults” that whizzed by you as a child.
We decided to do a Podcast and write this article to tell you some of the things we noticed.
This book had a lot of lessons to teach, some of them unintentional… here are 12 things that stood out to us…
- If you live where it gets cold you need 6 months of warmth, food, water available… If you don’t have that, your family is in peril.
- In a situation where you are cut off from transportation, you can’t depend on the stores for your supplies. You need to have enough on hand to get you by. You also can’t depend on hunting, sometimes the weather makes that impossible.
- Shelter must be sturdy. In the book, the Ingalls family were planning to winter in their “claim shanty”, basically a wood frame shelter with only tarpaper to keep the moisture out. Following the October blizzard, the family moved to live in a store building which it owned. In real life, Charles Ingalls was a carpenter and his building in town was much better constructed and weather resistant, so it was wise for him to move his family into town.
- Keeping up morale is essential. The family spent day upon endless day cooped up in one small room with nothing to do except the hard work of keeping themselves alive. They did, however, have many activities to keep their minds occupied, and also planned celebrations despite having virtually no resources.
- There will be outliers in the weather. Just because it’s “never happened before” doesn’t mean it will never happen. There’s no other winter on record like 1880-1881… thank goodness… but it did happen, and it could happen again.
- Menu variation reduces stress and nutritional problems. They got so tired of bread and potatoes that once they were down to just those foods, the children had real trouble making themselves eat even the small portions that were available. At that, they were lucky that the potatoes held out so long or they would probably have shown scurvy and beriberi by spring.
- If you’re not eating well, you’re not thinking well, and you’re not well motivated. The girls were usually enthused about learning, but lost their ability to do even simple math problems once the food got really tight. They also lost interest in doing everything, just wanting to stay under the warm(er) covers all day. They did manage to get up and do the days’ tasks, but that was due to parental prodding.
- Even Pa would take food by force to feed his family. Later in the book, Pa goes to the Wilder brothers and gets grain so that his children wouldn’t starve. He doesn’t ask, he takes. Personally, I found this telling, because he still had livestock that he had not slaughtered, so he was not out of options, but it’s interesting how a man as “civilized” as Charles Ingalls basically took the food away from an unwilling Almanzo Wilder.
- Some folk remedies are very valuable. Some are not. The whole ‘rubbing snow on frostbitten skin’ thing, for example, was a well known remedy in Laura’s time. It was, and remains, a terrible idea (CLICK HERE FOR FULL ARTICLE ON FROSTBITE).
- Weather changes topography. Even if you know an area well, have maps and compasses. In the book, some of the men just got lucky in not missing town. I was not surprised by this, having myself been amazed at how a snow storm could obliterate my inherent navigation even of an area I know well.
- Price gouging is a bad idea. Always.
- It can’t beat us.