Tuesday 6 March 2018

The Long Winter -- by Sheena Wilkinson

It wasn't all snowballing fun
So March came in like a Polar Bear. Like many other History Girls and readers, I’ve been snowed in for some days now. I can walk to the village shop, but it ran out of milk and bread on Thursday. I haven’t spoken to an actual human for a couple of days, and I’m pathetically excited about the fact that the thaw has started and I should be able to drive to town today.

on the way to the shop

Compared to people in other places, I’ve got off very lightly – the power stayed on, I had plenty of fuel, and there was food, of a somewhat dull but sustaining sort, in the freezer. The only thing I ran out of was seed for the wild birds, but the RSPB website was great at telling me what I could safely feed from my store cupboard. The birds are looking plump and happy on cooked rice and suet.

I’ve enjoyed – in a horrified sort of way – watching TV documentaries about the Big Freezes of 1947 and 1963, and being grateful that things aren’t so bad this time round. I’ve also been grateful for a home I can afford to heat, and for the fact that, unlike during the last local Big Snow (Easter 2013) I don’t have a horse to look after.

snow shapes
But mostly I’ve been thinking about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her pioneer girlhood, especially the harsh Dakota winter of 1880-1881, which she immortalised in her 1940 novel, The Long Winter.

What a wimp I am compared to Laura and her family. I felt very pioneer-spirited trudging through the snow in my thermal coat to the shed to fetch coal (a distance of some twenty feet, perhaps), and dragging a large bag of it back to the porch to save having to go back out. Not for me twisting hay in the lean-to, shrouded in blankets.
Pa and Laura, so much more intrepid than I

I’ve felt virtuous at managing not to give in and eat the box of Dairy Box in the cupboard (I’m supposed to be off sweets for Lent). Not for me having to worry that ‘surely a train must come before the last bread was gone.’

When I arrived at the village shop at the same time as another woman, both intent on buying the last of the milk, we were able to agree that she have the full-fat and I the semi-skimmed. Not for me having to find the hidden seed wheat in the wall as Pa does in The Long Winter.

I’ve been able to play my guitar in front of the blazing fire, and be glad to have some extra practice time. Unlike Pa, whose hands are too cracked and stiff from the weather to play his beloved fiddle.

As a child, The Long Winter was my least favourite of Wilder’s historical novels. It was so – well, so cold and bleak. As an adult I’m full of admiration not only for how the family and community survived, but also for how she was able to turn the experience into a satisfying novel.

Not great drying weather

As for my own historical novel, the Beast From the East gave me the perfect opportunity to stay at home and finish it. It’s about a different sort of long winter; hopefully I’ll be able to talk about it here soon.


Michelle Ann said...

I think this was my favourite of all the Little House on the Prairie novels, and made me appreciate what 'snowflakes' we are compared to people of the past!

Unknown said...

I agree..the cold hard facts of this book, of all the others in the series, seemed so real. The horrible house Laura lived in, her rescue when Almanzo came to take her to her family... I was startled to find that great grandmother lived a life in Nebraska at the same time as Laura in SD. Her details made my ancestor come alive. Thank you for continuing the story.