Getting snowed in the week before last reminded me of a much-beloved book from my childhood. I’m thinking of course of The Long Winter which is part of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series of books. Set in the later 1800’s and forward and based on the Ingalls family’s peripetatic life (Wilder changed some things – most notably some of the chronology and the age of the main character whom she based on herself) the series begins with Little House in the Big Woods and ends with The First Four Years (which was published after Wilder’s death). The Long Winter is a fictionalized account of an actual event which took place in De Smet, South Dakota. Blizzards began in the early fall of 1880 and continued through the late spring of 1881 and attacked the area with such frequency that trains were snowed in on the tracks and the townspeople faced lack of fuel and near starvation. I don’t know about you, but that puts some aspects about our recent snow storm into perspective for me.
It’s difficult for me to exaggerate how much I loved these books as a child. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some aspects of the stories that bothered me. Some of the characters express very unpleasant racial attitudes (especially Ma Ingalls) and I was always vaguely troubled by Pa’s insistence on uprooting his family so dramatically and so often. In the books, the Ingalls family moves from Wisconsin to Kansas then back to Wisconsin then to Minnesota and finally to South Dakota. Of course, by the time I turned ten my own family had moved at least that many times, and always for my father’s work, so make of that what you will.
Now you shouldn’t think that I actually wanted to be a pioneer girl myself what with all the stampeding oxen, creeks filled with leeches and grasshopper invasions but it was delicious to read about such exotic things. It was also comforting to recognize things that Laura’s world and mine had in common – sibling love and combat, strong parental affection, animals, school and, of course, mean girls like Nellie Oleson. I especially loved reading about the clothes the characters wore and how they fed themselves (or couldn’t as in The Long Winter ) and to this day I love books that describe fashion and food in detail (like the books in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series).
- Little House in the Big Woods
- Farmer Boy
- Little House on the Prairie
- On the Banks of Plum Creek
- By the Shores of Silver Lake
- The Long Winter
- Little Town on the Prairie
- These Happy Golden Years
- The First Four Years
After reading about such exotic foodstuffs as prairie chicken and maple sugar on snow you might get the urge to try out some frontier cooking of your own. If so, Barbara M. Walker’s Little House Cookbook: frontier foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic stories will be just what you need. I can’t promise that you’ll care for blackbird pie (Little Town on the Prairie) or stewed jack rabbit and dumplings (Little House on the Prairie) but you might very well love fried apples and onions (Farmer Boy) or vanity cakes (On the Banks of Plum Creek). All in all, this is a charming companion to the series.
If you really develop a fascination with all things Laura, don’t miss The Wilder Life : my adventures in the lost world of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure. A lifelong devotee of the books, McClure begins to delve deeper into the world of the series. She even goes so far as to buy a churn on eBay. She sets up the churn, works the churn for about twenty-five minutes, and when she looks inside she discovers…butter. Butter which tastes remarkably like regular butter. McClure reports that “…I felt like a genius and a complete idiot at the same time.” McClure is an engaging writer – both sincere and hilarious. I’ve only just started the book and I’ve laughed out loud at least a dozen times. Highly recommended.