It grieves me that I don’t have a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s full coming-of-age series here in Washington, DC with me, because folks really need to remember that when it comes to winter, the past week or so barely rates. I think there are a couple of things worth remembering about The Long Winter, the story of an incredibly harsh winter the Ingalls’ lived through that lasted from October to May, when the train finally got through with the family’s Christmas turkey. First, they started out the year with a mediocre to bad harvest: even before the blizzard hit, Laura knew that the yield from her family’s new claim would get them through the winter if the stretched it, and no one expected winter to last seven months. These are folks who thought they knew how bad it could be, who had neighbors who walked eighty miles to get them a stick of Christmas candy, where the patriarch of the household once survived a blizzard for days by holing up in the snow and eating the treats he was supposed to bring home to his daughters. They had no idea what they were in for.
Second, the book is really about how Almanzo Wilder, the man who would become Laura’s husband, saves her and her family, but not in a damsel-in-distressy kind of way. They meet for the first time when Laura and her sister Carrie get lost in the Big Slough trying to bring back a tooth for a hay-cutter to their father, and lose their way. Later in the winter, when the Ingalls and many of their neighbors are quite literally starving to death, Pa Ingalls figures out that Almanzo and his brother have stockpiled wheat literally in the walls of their store: they’ve built hidden storage space. Weak with hunger and unable to provide for the family, he goes to the Wilder brothers and demands that they give or sell him some of the grain, and ultimately, they do, without sacrificing his dignity. And finally, Almanzo and Cap Garland, a younger boy, risk their lives to bring back enough wheat to get the town through the rest of the winter from a farmer with a stockpile of his own. In a very different way from Farmer Boy, the book in the series that focuses on Almanzo’s childhood, The Long Winter is about establishing Almanzo’s character and fitness to marry Laura. He’s got to grow up enough to earn her, and she has to grow up enough to learn to love and trust him.