Done with The Long Winter/Little Town on the Prairie

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.

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13 thoughts on “Done with The Long Winter/Little Town on the Prairie

  1. On the question of LIW’s perception of the Homestead Act, you might also read her daughter (and colloborator–most authorities agree that RWL significantly shaped the final form of the “Little House” series) Rose Wilder Lane’s book _Free Land_, which suggests that it destroyed the homesteaders.

  2. I’m commenting on your last paragraph…Mary’s collage was paid for because she was blind. It is important to a woman that her children are dressed well.A woman can not attend collage in one homespun dress with a feed sack apron. The family pitched to provide for Mary’s clothings. As stated Laura wrote as she remembered things and she may have not been to thrilled with have to scrimp so her sister could dress better than she. Just my opinion..:)

  3. I don’t have time to write lengthly as my children are waking however, I wanted to say, I agree with you regarding the straight foreward style of Laura’s prose. I particularly appreciate that she didn’t explain things away or into the narrative – one spot I like is how she describes the crossing of the swollen creek as they head into indian territory – she never fully explains how the creek became so dangerous etc…I think it is because she was adamant about sticking to the child’s viewpoint so she didn’t impose her hindsight on the situation (I remember reading that somewhere). I also like in “On the Banks of Plum Creek” how when Laura tells the truth and Pa understands (he was very angry and she was in huge trouble) he abruptly went to the door way and stood shoulders shaking (as an adult we know he was hiding his laughter at her explanation) but she never explains that to the younger readers. That said I recently found a site with a time line for the family and we’ve discovered that stuff isn’t always narrated in order – I don’t know if that is faulty memory or if it is because her collaborator was her daughter Rose and apparently made a lot of editing and pacing decisions for the book…

    (some of this I picked up from a book I am reading called “A Little House Reader” which gets into the writing habits of the whole family)

    I am also in full agreement about how Pa’s flaw of a pioneering spirit was so difficult on the family – my Dad would have been a pioneer…

    I gotta run – but this is close to my heart at the moment as we are listening to these books over and over and over (unabridged audio) with my five year old as she loves them…

  4. Laura definitely gets my vote for best American prose, with my all-time favorite book passage being the end of Little House in the Big Woods. “…This was now and it could never be long ago..”

    I do think Pa did decide never to let himself get into the situation he got into in The Long Winter, although I agree they did eventually give up on pioneering and moved permanently to town.

    Finally, I just love the passage in The Long Winter where after all the hardships Grace says something like, “I’m cold,” and they all say, “For shame, Grace.”

    But we may have talked about that on the Plain Talk :)

  5. We have read through the “Little House” series many, many times and each time our eyes our opened to more and more. This last time we read through “The Long Winter” we were struck with many of the same issues you addressed, but we were also so impressed with Amanzo Wilder and his rescue mission to obtain food for the community. We were also impressed with his 4th of July horse and buggy race which he won using what he had, NOT a new, fancy wagon like the others, but a big, heavy, old one along with very well-trained horses. We were inspired by it and the modern day analogy we drew from it.
    Great post!
    Lisa

  6. Last winter I read a very interesting book, The Ghost in the Litte House:A Life of Rose Wilder Lane. Rose was a remarkable woman in her own right, and the book gives a great deal of insight into Laura’s later life as well.

  7. Because these stories take place during a time of great change in our nation following the War of Northern (Banking) Aggression, where it was rapidly transitioning into a corporate empire of centralized state control, the insights and lessons found within them are quite invaluable to those who desire live a biblical agrarian life, as they spell out the worldview of Charles Ingalls and the real world results that came of them as he lived them out. Thanks Rick for a great post.

  8. Re: the pacing and details of the story, some things were altered in order to make it work better as a book. For example, when she first wrote Big Woods, Mrs. Wilder hadn’t planned on writing any further, so Baby Carrie was in that book even though she wasn’t born until they lived in Indian Territory. And “Nellie Oleson” is a composite of three different girls Mrs. Wilder knew growing up. She also said that she left out things that were just too sad to write about in a children’s book, like her only brother who died in infancy.

    I have loved these books since childhood and still learn lessons from them as an adult. I remember reading about Laura helping Pa harvest hay in The Long Winter and thinking that folks in those days just didn’t feel the heat like we do today. Many years later I realized that they most certainly did feel the heat, and the cold, too, but that it was absolutely a sin to complain about things like that since it was complaining against the sovereignty of God. Boy, do I need that lesson!

  9. Rick

    As usual, your cogent, insightful, well-written blog has given much food for thought… I rarely have time to comment these days, but one thing I would like to say here.

    I think that the Homestead Act was a good thing.

    I see your reasoning about how it got people thinking about getting something for nothing from the government, and in fact, you may be very correct, in that this was the first form of “welfare” so to speak.

    However, when I was in Russia a couple of years ago, I realized that the people there had never had the land. The governement has always had the land, and as a result, there are several periods in history where the Russian people have starved because of mismanagement by the government. In fact, it was after the 1959 crop failures in Russia that the Soviet Union gave everyone thier “dacha,” a small garden spot on the outside of town. It was the “dacha” which has saved millions from starvation in the early ’60’s, and early ’90’s.

    With the Homestead Act, the United States was populated on the land, not in the cities. As a result, we have an infrastructure that facilitates the distribution of food. Whereas in Russia, for example, food grown 200 miles from a city has no chance of getting there effeciently (this may be a good thing!!).

    Let’s be honest here, if you stop paying your property taxes, you’ll find out real quick who owns the land in this country, but I beleive the Homestead Act provided an opportunity for the middl e of America to be settled, and ultimately, to provide food for our nation and much of the world.

    Where we go from here is another story altogether!!

    Thanks for your excellent work on your blog, it’s fun and educational to read!

    JM

  10. John,

    I tend to agree with you.

    The Homestead Act is quite a fascinating aspect of US history. Various aspects of a homestead Act were debated as early as the 1790’s, but interestingly enough the vocal criticism of the Southern States against such a policy was strong enough that the Act didn’t pass until 1862 after those states succeeded. The original act prohibited any who had taken up arms against the US from qualifying.

    Setting aside some of the powerful folks who were able to abuse the system, the Act itself really can’t be considered as a “get something for nothing” piece of legislation. Those who qualified for the Act had to build a home, establish a farm, and improve upon it for five years prior to receiving a deed for the property. I think there was also a provision to buy the 160 acre plot after six months, although most of the homesteaders did not have the money to do so.

    Considering how difficult it was in the late 19th century to homestead in the Western lands, to have survived and improved upon it for five years was a feat that required the cost of much sweat and blood. Some have argued that the difficulties in settling these lands were so great that had the Homestead Act not been enacted, the settling of some areas would have been nearly impossible.

    Bob

  11. John and Bob,

    “Something for nothing” was a poor choice of words on my part. Even though the rallying cry of the homesteaders was “Free land!”, I think the actual temptation was to get a reward out of proportion to the labor invested, presumably because of the risk involved. The DeSmet settlers had a remarkable “take a chance” mentality, which led to some acts of courage (e.g. Almanzo and Cap locating wheat for a hungry town) and quite a few acts of recklessness (e.g. Almanzo driving to pick up a perfectly safe Laura when the temperature was forty below and dropping). I think the Homestead Act selected for that sort of attitude, with mixed results.

    I’m still trying to figure out the intent of the Homestead Act. If it was intended to establish the U.S. as a nation of farmers, it succeeded in the short term (372,000 farms created) but failed in the long term (the Census Bureau no longer bothers to count family farms). Did it fail here because of some inherent flaw, or because of external social factors, or just because this wasn’t really the intent?

    If the Homestead Act was intended to settle the West, it clearly succeeded at that—but how urgent was it that the West be settled? Was the natural, unassisted rate of expansion not sufficient? Was all the farmable land east of the Mississippi spoken for?

  12. Rick, you ask some good questions. I am not sure if I can answer them fully. It’s been awhile since I’ve read on that period of US history.

    During the 1840’s, there were regular columns that appeared in the Atlantic seaboard papers that were written by philosophical agrarians who bemoaned the implementation of the industrial “wage slave” mentality and the growing poverty of the city.

    There was also a problem with the expanding slums, particularly in the coastal cities, as waves of poor immigrants continued to land without purse or purpose. (I’ve read estimates that by the 1850’s, over a 1/5 of the population of New York were being maintained by various “poor taxes” or charitable gifts.)

    During the 1840’s, a goodly portion of the Louisiana Purchase, was still unsettled and it was argued that these lands should be offered to maintain the integrity of the working man. It was believed by many that offering these lands would be beneficial in many ways front – easing some of the labor and poverty issues developing along the coast, helping to assist in the expansion of the west, and maintaining an agrarian economy. There was opposition by both industrialists and the wealthy class of the antebellum south. I’m not sure that I understand the nature of their opposition.

    It was illegal to “squat” on lands, although prior to the homestead act, this was largely the practice by people moving west.

    While the greater percentage of the homesteads were filed in the western states, there were a few states east of the Mississippi (Ohio, Mich, and Wisc) that were populated to some extent by the Homestead Act, as well as a few of the Gulf Coast states.

    One of the modern criticisms of the Homestead Act is that while it made land available, it did not provide a means to transport able families from crowded eastern areas to the west. In fact, I have read that the majority of the homesteads were filed by people moving one state to the west (much like Pa Ingalls!) How was a a poor Irish family living in a shack in the slums to procure a wagon or passage to the western lands?

    Although there were agrarians that argued incessantly for the opening of the public lands for homesteading, I am not certain that the politician in favor of the Act viewed theexpansion of western lands as necessary to maintain an agrarian economy.

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