When Chris and I went on our musical roadtrip earlier this month, among the books I took along was The Long Winter, thinking that I might need an occasional break from the heavier reading I also packed. It turned out to be the only book I read—I was riveted, and pulled it out at every spare moment. I suppose it was an odd sight when we went to the new Starbucks for my morning coffee, Chris reading a fat authorized biography of Lawrence of Arabia while his dad read one of the Little House books.
With every book in the series my admiration grows for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accomplishment, and I can’t really do her books justice here; it would take an article much longer and more detailed than I have time to write. But she has done something in these books that is unique in my experience, perhaps unique in literature, by telling such a rich tale in such an artless manner.
In Wilder’s writing the flourishes, such as they are, are restricted to descriptions of nature. Her words almost never get in the way of her account of events. Important details are presented matter-of-factly and left uninterpreted except by subsequent events. Sometimes subsequent events don’t cooperate, and we are left hanging, as when the family was walking home after a community Thanksgiving supper put on by the church’s Ladies Aid Society:
“I know you are tired, Caroline,” said Pa as he carried Grace homeward, while Ma carried the lantern to light the way and Laura and Carrie followed, lugging the basket of dishes. “But your Aid Society sociable was a great success.”
“I am tired,” Ma replied. A little edge to her gentle voice startled Laura. “And it wasn’t a sociable. It was a New England Supper.”
Pa said no more. The clock was striking eleven when he unlocked the door, and the next day was another school day, and tomorrow night was the Friday Literary.
Why did Ma have an edge in her voice when she replied? I have no idea. The supper is never mentioned again, and Ma doesn’t express any unhappiness in the rest of the book. All I can figure is that, here as elsewhere Laura Ingalls Wilder records the events as she remembers them, without using them to drive some writerly purpose. And snippets like this reinforce my impression that Wilder has not shaded the truth in her writing, leaving me free to speculate about the meaning of various trends and turns in the tale.
Here are a few thoughts I have about the story of the Ingalls:
- As much as I admire Charles Ingalls, his major shortcoming was what I can only call a pioneer spirit. Most of the heartaches and setbacks suffered by the family were the result of Pa’s willingness to take risks so as to improve their lot, whether it be more land or a frame house or better hunting or a place to grow cash crops. A less generous name for this is discontentment.
- Most of the setbacks and heartaches suffered by the family were tied to modern innovations and conveniences—cash cropping, railroads, using coal for heating, store-bought food and dry goods. There is a slow but inexorable shift from directly providing the family’s needs to earning money to pay for things.
- Pa was aware that it was courting trouble to become dependent on modern conveniences. During the long winter the Ingalls ran perilously short on supplies:
“If only I had some grease I could fix some kind of a light,” Ma considered. “We didn’t lack for light when I was a girl, before this newfangled kerosene was ever heard of.”
“That’s so,” said Pa. “These times are too progressive. Everything has changed too fast. Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves—they’re good things to have but the trouble is, folks get to depend on ’em.”
So after the long winter was over, why didn’t Pa renounce his dependence on newfangled things?
- Ma Ingalls’ major shortcoming was a concern for the opinion of others. The worst part of this was her insistence that her girls get proper schooling, an insistence that leads them repeatedly to live in or near town. And town life changed the Ingalls family more than any other single factor. But there are many, many other moments where Ma’s reaction to a situation is “What will people think?”
- The Homestead Act was probably not a good thing, because it played on people’s desire to get something for nothing. The deeper I look, the more I think that this goes for the pioneering spirit in general.
- Why was Ma so insistent on schooling for her daughters? Time and again in the books either weather or circumstances prevent Laura and Carrie from attending school for long stretches—and when they finally return, they haven’t fallen behind a bit, because they kept up with their lessons at home. Why bring schools and teachers into it?
- Nobody in 19th century America seemed to blink at the idea that the average woman (girl, really) was competent to teach other people’s children, much less her own.
- Although it isn’t clear in the books (so far, anyway), the state paid nearly all expenses for Mary’s time at college, with the Ingalls only having to pay for her transportation between school and home, and to provide her with clothing. But somehow this was a major hardship for them, to the extent that Laura needed to do piecework sewing in town and hire on as a schoolteacher before she turned sixteen. Why was the expense so high—the fashionable clothing needed to be “presentable”? Was the training and education that Mary received worth the toll it took on the family?
Many other thoughts came to me as I was reading these books; these are just the ones I can recall off the top of my head.