Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books bring an icy blast of the prairie winter when blizzards could strike at any moment. To me as a child, they were full of adventure and excitement; as an adult I am shocked at how full of danger they are.
In one of the early books, On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura’s Pa goes to look for work hundreds of miles away after a grasshopper plague destroyed their harvest – and gets caught in a blizzard on the way home. Buried inside a snow bank, he eats all the Christmas candy, but spots Ma’s lamp in the window during a lull in the storm and realises he is just a few metres from the house. The family are reunited for Christmas, but the extent to which pioneers were left teetering on the brink of destitution if their harvest failed is horribly clear.
The blizzard itself, mindlessly cruel, becomes a character in its own right in The Long Winter, which covers the events of 1880-81, when an Indian chief predicts “Heap big snow come” and the town is swallowed up by storms for seven months. As Laura lies in bed, she hears voices in the wind – wolves howling, Indian war cries and “crowds of people muttering, then shrieking and fleeing screaming away from fierce yells chasing them”. The family retreat into a twilight world where they grind flour in the coffee grinder to make bread, twist hay into sticks to keep the fire alight, and drink black tea once the cow’s milk dries up.
When I first read these books, I was thrilled by the peril – but always felt secure in the knowledge that Laura would be safe thanks to the indomitable spirit of her Ma and Pa. Now, knowing that other wagon trains succumbed to starvation, and massacres of white settlers by native Americans were taking place not far from where the Ingalls family lived, I find their survival far more impressive.
If this all sounds rather bleak, other books in the series shed a brighter light on the season. All my daydreams of America in winter are based on the Little House books: from sliding on the frozen ice of Silver Lake to making patterns on frosty windows using Ma’s thimble – and above all, the cooking. If you, like me, lust after proper American pancakes served with blueberries and syrup (or bacon if you prefer), read the description of a “sugaring off” party where all the children make their own candy by pouring maple syrup into a bowl of snow, and let your mouth water.
My favourite scene, however, describes the family’s arrival at the house where they are going to spend the winter in South Dakota – the initial settlers in the town that became De Smet. Laura walks along the shore of Silver Lake and is first into the new house – and discovers it has a room devoted entirely to food. “All the walls of that small room were shelves […] under the shelves stood barrels and boxes. The first barrel was nearly full of flour. The second held cornmeal. There was a wooden box full of square soda crackers and a box full of big slabs of salted fish.”
The idea of a pantry being such a novelty is amusing to 21st-century eyes, but from Laura’s perspective, knowing her family have left behind hardship in Minnesota, the food store is heaven indeed. Their Christmas dinner that year is a real celebration – roasted jack rabbit, mashed potato, cucumber pickles, cornbread, tinned peaches and apple pie – and as Pa says, it’s the “first Christmas dinner anyone ever ate in this part of the country”.
Of course describing themselves as the “first settlers” in a new territory brings with it layers of ambiguity – but the Little House books are much more complex and thoughtful in their attitude towards native Americans than is commonly believed. If you want both sides of the story, read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown – and do read it, it’s brilliant – but don’t dismiss Laura Ingalls as a colonial apologist until you’ve read her books. They deserve to be remembered and re-read, especially in the depths of winter, if you want to imagine yourself in a cosy log cabin on the prairie, with wolves howling all around.
• Do you have a favourite winter read you’d like to write about? If so, please wrap up 6-700 words in an email to [email protected], and we’ll publish our favourites. (We will try to acknowledge them – but given how “snowed under” we often are here, we can’t promise to acknowledge every submission.
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