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.
4. Heat Continue reading