The Call of The Long Winter

“Laura tried to listen but she felt stupid and numb. Pa’s voice slid away into the ceaseless noises of the storm. She felt that the blizzard must stop before she could do anything, before she could even listen or think, but it would never stop. It had been blowing forever.”

Anyone who’s read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books has some visceral memory of The Long Winter, which lasted from October through April: the endless twisting of hay, using the coffee grinder to hull wheat, the butter-less bread and clothes line that lead the way to the barn in the blizzard.

My mom read me the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, which she herself had cherished as a young girl; your parents might have done something similar. These books are pretty unrecoverably racist in a bunch of explicit and insidiously implicit ways, and I feel strongly that they should no longer be read by young readers. Even if you pair them with Indigenous, non-settler perspectives, most of us simply lack the skills, knowledge, and ability to situate these books the way they need to be situated, to de-naturalize the narratives of conquest, colonialism, white supremacy, and Manifest Destiny. These books are just as responsible for the deeply harmful myth of the West as John Wayne or Zane Grey.

(If you disagree, consider whether, as an Indigenous parent, you’d want this book to be a text in your kids’ lives, or a representation of their history — peripheral characters in the narrative of their civilization’s decimation. Try the Birchbark House series, by Louise Erdrich, instead.)

But there also comes an age when you can actually analyze and process what literature is doing, instead of just where the plot is going. You can re-read these books as adults, at which point, as one recent re-reader put it to me, the “racism really pops out,” despite the naturalizing attempts of the narrative. Does that “ruin” the pleasure I had as a kid in reading these books? I mean, the narrative itself should be “ruined,” if that’s what we choose to call “being honest about the literal and figurative erasure of Indigenous people.” But here’s the thing: the pleasure you’re remembering was pleasure just in reading, not necessarily the content. What’s precious was that time, either spent by yourself and in your mind, or with whoever was reading the book to you — not these books. (For a great example of this strategy in action, I cannot recommend the American Girls podcast strongly enough)

What’s interesting to me, then, is why these books were the success that they were — and why they made such an impression on so much readers. There were plenty of books about homesteading. But the first of the Little House books was published in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression; The Long Winter, the sixth in the series, was published in 1940. In Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser writes that Wilder had the “unique ability to transform the raw material of the past into a work of art.”

Much of this, I think, stems from the attention to sensory detail. In The Long Winter, Laura describes how, when the blizzards were really blowing, she’d wake up to the heads of the nails in the roof of their house covered in frost; my most vivid Little House memory is of the girls waking up warm and toasty under their quilts, while Pa shovels feet of snow off of them. Others have other, time-proof details: I had forgotten about the straw-twisting, for example, until I re-read The Long Winter, but apparently nobody else had.

In the Great Depression and World War II, the details of depravation and making-do would’ve likely felt familiar to many — the green pumpkin pie, the butter-less bread, stretching a pot of beans through the day. Gradually, many of those details became romantic, exotic, comparative, at least that’s how they read today: no matter how mad I am at the pandemic, at least I can go on a walk and watch Netflix. But Ingalls was also a master at the secondary effects of the physical world, at describing how your surroundings make you feel.

From the middle of the fifth or sixth massive blizzard:

“‘You girls stay in bed and keep warm as you like,’ Ma said, and Laura did not get up until nine o’clock. The cold was pressing on the house and seeping in, rising higher and higher, and the ceaseless noise and the dusk seemed to hold time still.”

From the ninth or tenth:

“They were not really hungry. Pa was hungry. His eyes looked eagerly at the brown bread and the steaming potatoes when he came from struggling along the clothesline in the storm. But the others were only tired, tired of the winds and the cold and the dark, tired of brown bread and potatoes, tired and listless and dull….When enough hay was twisted to last for an hour, she sat down by Mary, between the stove and the table, and opened the school-books. But she felt dull and stupid. She could not remember history and she leaned her head on her hand and looked at the problem on her slate without seeing how to solve it or wanting to.”

Or this moment, when she realizes yet again what her future seems destined to hold:

'“Laura didn’t want didn’t want to teach, but she must do it to please Ma. Probably all her life she must go among strange people and teach strange children; she would always be scared and she must never show it.”

Fraser believed that The Long Winter was Wilder’s masterpiece, which seems right, esepcially if we’re thinking of her particular skill as evoking and replicating visceral memory. The book focuses on a spread of readily identifiable months with a specific and straightforward goal: endure. The chapters are, in truth, repetitive — but that’s the point. The Long Winter was long; it wasn’t experienced as a series of distractions and small delights, but as an extended nothingness, punctuated by work, dashed hopes, unplayable fiddles, too much sleep, and bread you weren’t even hungry for.

The similarities to the quarantined present are obvious, if somewhat embarrassing. I have an abundance of comfort, an overwhelming number of things to distract me, so many things to eat. But I’ve yet to read something that so effectively evokes the feeling of the pandemic: There were no more lessons. There was nothing in the world but cold and dark and work and coarse brown bread and winds blowing. The storm was always there, outside the walls, waiting sometimes, then pouncing, shaking the house, roaring, snarling, and screaming in rage. Out of bed in the morning to hurry down and dress by the fire. Then work all day to crawl into a cold bed at night and fall asleep as soon as the grew warm. The winter had lasted so long. It would never end.

In her 2017 review of Prairie Fires, historian Patricia Limerick writes that both Wilder and her daughter (and editor), Rose Wilder Lane, were “confronted with a question that occupies center stage in our times: When people embrace, trust, and act on the proposition that the United States is a land of opportunity, how are they to make sense of failure?”

Lane — and, we’re to believe, Wilder — did so through an embrace of libertarian politics, and a rejection of FDR and the progressivism of the New Deal. The copyright of the books fell outside of the family, to religious conservative control, and the series has been positioned accordingly, a primary text of the larger “homesteading” movement. It makes sense: one way to reckon with the failure of contemporary America is to return — ideologically, physically — to spaces that allow you to live action role play at straightforward domination and supremacy.

But our current moment isn’t just about grappling with individual struggles or individual failures: it feels far more nationalized than that. The United States has been failing for some time; the pandemic makes that much undeniable. How will we make sense of it now, and in years to come? How will this moment be narrativized, who will become its heroes, who will be erased?

The final pages of The Long Winter describe a long-awaited reunion, filled with abundance and celebration of hanging out with people for the first time, with doing things they’d been unable to do for so many long months. “As they sang, the fear and suffering of the long winter seemed to rise like a dark cloud and float away on the music. Spring had come. The sun was shining warm, the winds were soft, and the green grass growing.”

The Long Winter ended, and so will this pandemic. But it’s worth considering now what half-truths and rounded lies will appear in service of a comforting, triumphant narrative in the future. So much about this country is broken. How, and when, do we stop telling ourselves stories and actually fix it?

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

I’m currently working on a series of articles on the “hollow” middle class — people whose income ostensibly places them in middle class bracket, but debt / rent / childcare / medical costs etc make it so they barely making ends meet month to month. If this is you, I'd like to hear more.

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