I’m enjoying all of the Little House books, but this one has been the best to date.
First, Laura’s a teenager here. She’s assumed many more grown-up responsibilities around the Ingalls’ home. Not only is her work becoming more critical to the operation of the household, she’s starting to be let in on the dangers of her family’s life in a way that she’s not been before. In The Long Winter, Laura faces the very real possibility of losing her family and her own life. She witnesses her parents shift their ideals, strange as they seem to modern audiences, to suit the needs of the family. Ma lets Laura help Pa with the summer haying despite her claim that only immigrants let their daughters do such work. Laura’s assistance not only helps Pa avoid sunstroke, but it contributes greatly to their survival in the long winter.
One thing I love about this book is that Ma finally loses it. She doesn’t go completely ape, but she snaps at Pa and just in general acts much more like I do on a daily basis (but without the profanity). I feel like I can relate to her better now, even though the hardships that cause her to lose it are relentless blizzards and the impending starvation of her family while I lose it when over something like my husband leaving the empty cat food cans in the sink rather than rinsing them out immediately and putting them in the recycling. Still, the proof that Ma ever loses it at all helps me feel a greater kinship to her.
I also really enjoyed the bits of discussion in this book about the double-edged sword of technological advance. Whether it’s Ma complaining about their reliance on kerosene or Pa concerned about their reliance on the trains, the point is that while technology brings us great gifts, we quickly become dependent upon their fruits and find we can’t live without them.
I find that I often use the Little House books as a model for how I ought to live my life. We experienced a four-day power outage in our New England home after the freak snowstorm last October, and listening to The Long Winter (I listened to the audiobook read by Cherry Jones), I constantly thought back to just how ill-suited our home (and our family) is to inclement weather. When we’re cut off from electricity, we can do nothing. Our food spoils, we can’t heat our home, we can’t cook, we have no hot water. Luckily we’re on city water and sewer and don’t rely on a sump to flush our toilets and run the taps, or we’d not have been able to stay in our home during that cold, dark four days. My thoughts turned to how to make our home less reliant on the “grid” and I realized (yet again) how little my husband and I know about the workings of our dwelling. While I wouldn’t want to live in a 250-square-foot home with my family, I can certainly see how doing so would (could) simplify our lives. I find myself yearning for knowledge about sustainable energy sources and uber-insulation and woodstoves, but in the end, daily life intercedes and I get tied up once again in the daily tasks of doing dishes and washing clothes. That and the knowledge that the longest we’ve lived in any home in our adult lives is two years is enough to discourage us from any major renovations, regardless of the purpose.
In the end, though, the thing that struck me was how close their family is. They have restraint and concern for the other family members and don’t just blurt things out whenever they think of them. They don’t yell at each other. They don’t clamor for the bigger share of possessions or food or parental affection. When they’re down (and they’re not down unless the wolf’s not just slavering at the door but has pulled up a chair for supper), they sing together or read together or just sit together and tell stories. Maybe learning how to make hay or how to grind wheat in a coffee grinder aren’t the lessons I should be getting from the Little House books.
But then, our coffee grinder is electric, too.