When I was little and got sick, Mom would make me a bed on the sofa and tuck me in with a tie quilt made of small flannel squares, our family’s equivalent of Linus’ security blanket. One of the little wooden chairs from my table-and-chair set would become my side table, set with Kleenex and ginger ale and Ritz crackers and a puzzle to occupy myself. When I was really sick, I stayed in bed, and if I was well enough, I read.
There were two book series I read voraciously as a child: Nancy Drew mysteries and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. Is it a coincidence that I met Nancy and the Ingalls family during bedroom quarantines? Rereading The Long Winter takes me right back to that corner bedroom, where freezing cold made isinglass of its two tall windows, and a short cold walk from bed through hallway into kitchen was rewarded with warmth from the open oven door, in front of which I could get dressed.
As a child, of course I identified with Laura. We had the same name; we both wore our long hair in braids; we both preferred outdoor chores (like hay trampling or leaf raking) to indoor chores (like bonnet maintenance or ironing linens). And we both keenly sensed things we couldn’t always put into words.
Rereading children’s literature as an adult is a layered experience. I pay more attention to Pa and Ma, to their parenting and the dynamics of their marriage. And I am reminded of what it was to be a kid, feeling all the things that kids do and navigating the passage from dependence to responsibility, from small to big, which is not as neatly seamed as the muslin sheets Laura sews together.
So let’s get started. Here are a few questions to get us going. If these don’t address what you most want to say about the book, please jump in. What did you notice? What struck you? What did you like?
1a. Please begin wherever you like. What did you notice? What stood out for you? What parts do you find yourself thinking about?
1b. What pleases and delights you about reading this book in particular, and young people’s literature in general, as a grownup?
2. In the chapter “Fall of the Year,” Laura describes what she sees and feels when she goes to the well for water on the morning after the first frost.
The air bit her cheeks and scorched the inside of her nose with cold. The sky was coldly blue and the whole world was white. Every blade of grass was furry with frost, the path was frosted, the boards of the well were streaked with thick frost, and frost had crept up the walls of the shanty, along the narrow battens that held the black tar-paper on.
Then the sun peeped over the edge of the prairie and the whole world glittered. Every tiniest thing glittered rosy toward the sun and pale blue toward the sky, and all along every blade of grass ran rainbow sparkles.
Laura loved the beautiful world. She knew that the bitter frost had killed the hay and the garden. The tangled tomato vines with their red and green tomatoes, and the pumpkin vines holding their broad leaves over the green young pumpkins, were all glittering bright in frost over the broken, frosty sod. The sod’s corn stalks and long leaves were white. The frost had killed them. It would leave every living green thing dead. But the frost was beautiful.
Laura loved the beautiful world. What beauty do you see in winter, in nature’s transitions? Did you have opportunities to love the beautiful world in your childhood? How do we cultivate this in our children, in our own lives now?
3. Work was a seamless part of the Ingalls’ lives. In their own ways, Pa and Ma are tireless workers. Laura loves some kinds of work; she persuades Pa to let her help with the haying. She loves that work. The digging of potatoes, not so much. When she tells Ma about the haying, sisters Mary and Carrie gladly volunteer to increase their workloads by taking over some of Laura’s household chores. What were your household chores as a child? What chores have you given your children? How do chores prepare us (or not) for work in adulthood? What work do you relish, what work do you detest, and how do you get it all done? How do we, children or adults, take pride in the work we have to do, and apply creativity to the jobs at hand?
4. Pa sees the thickness of the muskrats’ house, the geese flying south earlier than ever, the early frost, and he feels urgency to move the family to town. When the first blizzard comes, Ma predicts it’ll be gone by morning, though it lasts two more days. How do Pa and Ma balance and complement each other? How do they negotiate disagreement?
5. In “An Errand to Town,” when Laura and Carrie go into town to buy a replacement part for the mowing machine, Laura is scared but doesn’t say so. Carrie offers to go with her to keep her company. After they’ve bought the part and gotten out of town, Carrie compliments her sister and confesses a funny feeling about being looked at. “Not scared, exactly,” she says.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” Laura said. “We mustn’t ever be scared.” Suddenly she told Carrie, “I feel the same way.”
What happens in relationships — sibling, parent-child, friend, spouse — when we confess fears and insecurities, even in the same breath as “we musn’t” statements? Is this a contradiction?
Several people have said this is their favorite book in the series. I hope that becomes part of our discussion these next five weeks. While talk of a long winter invites metaphor, we’d prefer to keep overt politics out of our discussion. Laura didn’t want to move into town, because of all the people. But being in town saved them.
Things to do with your children (or your spouse or significant other or friends or self):
• Make bookmarks. Use construction paper, drawing paper, the back of an envelope. For a sturdy bookmark, cut rectangles from an empty pasteboard box (crackers, cereal, pasta, etc.) and draw on the blank side. Draw snowflakes; write out a favorite quote from the book; write down our reading schedule to keep it handy.
• Look it up. What was that bird that Pa found, that Laura insisted was a small great auk? Look up pictures of auks and learn where they live. The story takes place in the southeastern Dakota Territory; find De Smet on a map. What’s a slough, and how do you pronounce it? Is there anything like it in your local geography?
• Bake or cook. It’s the wrong time of year to turn a green pumpkin to make surprise pie. But what’s on hand, in your pantry or fridge or fruit bowl? There might be aging apples or canned or frozen fruit that could easily be turned into a cobbler. Do you have dried beans on hand? Cook them for a lunch of bean broth and bread; bake them for a rib-warming dinner.
• Sing. Pa warms himself and gets his blood circulating on especially cold mornings by slapping himself to the beat of what Laura calls “his trouble song.” In The Sound of Music, when a thunderstorm drives all the children to Fraulein Maria’s room, she comforts them with a song about her favorite things. When I couldn’t sleep, my mother would sing to me. Even preverbal children sometimes soothe themselves with songlike babbling and humming. Singing has multiple mental and physiological benefits. What songs make you feel better? What songs do your children enjoy singing?
Thanks for joining us. Please come back next week.
Feb. 3 — “Make Hay While the Sun Shines” through “Indian Warning”
Feb. 10 — “Settled in Town” through “We’ll Weather the Blast”
Feb. 17 — “One Bright Day” through “Where There’s a Will”
Feb. 24 — “Antelope!” through “Breathing Spell”
March 3 — “For Daily Bread” through “Christmas in May”