As another Wisconsin snowstorm descended last night, I watched the brown muck in the yard turn white again. And I thought, bring it on!
I’d been sorting my bookshelf, and I realized I had the entire Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But one is missing, The Long Winter. Finding it is today’s top priority. It’s amazing plot development that heightens the stakes with near perfect pacing.
In late summer of 1880, an Indian chief warns Laura’s father to prepare for seven months of blizzards. Pa moves the family into the pioneer town of DeSmit, South Dakota, where he’d built a small building.
Immediately the wind begins to howl. Residents aren’t worried because the supply train will come with food, kerosene, coal, and everything they’ll need. Except it doesn’t come. Buried by blizzard after blizzard, the train master decides they can’t make it past the town of Tracy until spring.
And spring that year doesn’t come until early summer.
Wilder’s book is one of the most tension-filled novels I’ve ever read. She pulls readers into the despair: loneliness, fear, the howl of blizzards, and cold so severe the reader needs to cuddle with a blanket. Wandering out of town is a life-threatening journey.
When the coal is gone, Laura and Pa twist hay into sticks that burn quickly, throwing just enough heat to keep them from freezing. Other families burn furniture. The town’s lumber baron burns his livelihood.
Then the town runs out of food. The Ingalls grind coarse wheat in a coffee mill and survive on tiny meals of bread.
The heroes’ journey begins.
Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland risk their lives on the frozen prairie. The young men, both friends of Laura, heard rumors that a man living about fifteen miles from town has a huge supply of wheat. With no map, and no sense of direction because the landmarks are covered, they take off with two horses and an empty sled.
As another blizzard blinds the town, the young men return, nearly frozen, with bushels of wheat; enough to sustain the town until the trains can run. Like any good novel, there’s more bad luck. The June flooding is so intense, the train can’t slog through the muck.
I’ve vowed there will be no more winter complains from me. My furnace keeps the house at a toasty 70 degrees, and my refrigerator is full, mostly with food rotting in Tupperware.
No complaints except for one: the missing copy of The Long Winter. I’ll have to be satisfied with living it.