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I pulled Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Long Winter" from my son's bookshelf with the very explicit intention of helping myself feel better about this epic weather.
Of course, any reading of the vivid "Little House on the Prairie" accounts of laborious pioneer life will always work to induce a great surge of gratitude for our modern comforts. Friends of mine call it "The Brutal Series." (Wilder is back on the bestseller list, I see, with a never-before-published autobiography written in 1930.)
But "The Long Winter" offers, I would argue, the best of all antidotes to feelings that this is a horrible, awful, nasty winter. The trick is to compare our current winter woes not to our usual milder weather but to a dire prairie winter: the kind of winter when young Laura would wake, shivering, to a frigid house buffeted by blizzard, spend the dreary day twisting hay for heat and grinding wheat for the coarse brown bread that was her family's last remaining food, crawl back into a cold bed and shiver until the shivering itself made her warm enough to fall asleep.
"There were no more lessons. There was nothing in the world but cold and dark and work and coarse brown bread and winds blowing."
Suddenly, the Boston winter of 2015 feels more like a season of relative ease and mild inconvenience.
There's nothing like reading the whole book, but here are 10 boons of modernity that "Long Winter" passages cast into gratitude-inducing relief:
1. Weather forecasts
"Heap big snow come." That's the closest thing Laura's family gets to a forecast, from "a very old Indian." The more detailed forecast: "Heap big snow, big wind."
Much as we may sometimes curse the messengers who bring us dire forecasts, life without them meant that Laura's Pa took his life into his hands every time he ventured the couple of miles back to their claim land to load the hay he carted to their house in the tiny town of De Smet. A blizzard could hit at any time, and he'd be unable to make his way home.
2. Powerful plows
A major element of "The Long Winter's" plot is the snow blockade (see photo above) that stops all train traffic to the town for months, cutting it off from supplies. The "cut" around the tracks repeatedly fills with 20 feet of snow and ice, beyond the snowplow engine's power to remove.
Even driving a horse and cart over such deep snow becomes a dangerous ordeal when the horse steps on a snow surface with air pockets beneath and falls, panicked, into a deep snow pit. It then falls to the driver to dig the horse out.
3. Stronger houses
Early in the winter, Laura wakes to find that "ice crackled on the quilt where leaking rain had fallen."
...Her teeth chattered while she pulled on her clothes. Ma was dressing too, behind the curtain, but they were both too cold to say anything. They met at the stove where the fire was blazing furiously without warming the air at all. The window was a white blur of madly swirling snow. Snow had blown under the door and across the floor and every nail in the walls was white with frost.
The Ingalls family runs out of coal. They run out of kerosene. They run out of wood. All they have is hay, which Laura helps Pa twist into "sticks" they can burn in the stove — but she has to stop repeatedly because her hands grow too numb to work.
With no kerosene left for the lamp, Ma makes a "button lamp." She spreads axle grease on an old saucer; wraps a button in some old calico; sews the calico so that its corners taper upward, and lights its tapered tip.
It burned steadily, melting the axle grease and drawing it up through the cloth into itself, keeping itself alight by burning. The little flame was like the flame of a candle in the dark. "You're a wonder, Caroline," said Pa. "It's only a little light, but it makes all the difference."
6. Stocked supermarkets
True, it can be tricky these days to snag shovels or snow melt. But consider a visit to Mr. Harthorn's grocery store as the long winter wears on:
The bean barrel was empty. The cracker barrel was empty. The little brine in the bottom of the pork barrel had no pork in it. The long flat codfish box held only a little salt scattered in its bottom. The dried-apple and dried-blackberry box were empty.
Eventually, Laura and her family are reduced to eating nothing but brown bread, and precious little of that. Pa's cheekbones jut from his face.
When a blizzard strikes while the Ingalls girls are at school, just outside of town, they grope their way blindly through it, hoping they're headed in the direction home.
They could hardly walk in the beating, whirling snow. The schoolhouse had disappeared. They could see nothing but swirling whiteness and snow and then a glimpse of each other, disappearing like shadows...She tried to think. The others must be somewhere ahead. She must walk faster and keep up with them or she and Carrie would be lost. If they were lost on the prairie they would freeze to death.
8. Electronic entertainment
Yes, many of us might put this first on the list these days. And indeed, the tedium seems second only to possible starvation among the trials of that long prairie winter. At one point, Ma holds off incipient moping by promising the girls "an entertainment." Turns out it's a contest to see who can repeat more of The Independent Fifth Reader from memory. Yikes.
Blizzard-induced brain fog descends.
Laura tried to listen but she felt stupid and numb. Pa's voice slid away into the ceaseless noises of the storm. She felt that the blizzard must stop before she could do anything, before she could even listen or think, but it would never stop. It had been blowing forever.
"All day and all night the house trembled, the winds roared and screamed, the snow scoured against the walls and over the roof where the frosty nails came through. In other houses there were people, there must be lights, but they were too far away to seem real.
10. The right to complain
I admire the hardy pioneer spirit, of course, but I'm also happy to live in a time when complaining during rough times is not seen as quite such a sin.
"I am so tired of brown bread with nothing on it," Laura said.
"Don't complain, Laura!" Ma told her quickly. "Never complain of what you have. Always remember you are fortunate to have it."
Happily, "The Long Winter" ends with a long-delayed Christmas dinner in May, and a rousing song — a reminder that "tomorrow the sun may be shining, although it is cloudy today." And this encouraging description:
"And as they sang, the fear and the suffering of the long winter seemed to rise like a dark cloud and float away on the music. Spring had come. The sun was shining warm, the winds were soft, and the green grass growing."
Further reading: On Point: True Stories of the Real 'Pioneer Girl'
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