The Long Winter

When we went into quarantine almost exactly a year ago and started home-schooling, I showed my kids a YouTube video about one-room schoolhouses of the past.  Then I remembered the Walnut Grove schoolhouse from the TV series of “Little House On the Prairie”. I grew up watching that show every day back in the 1980s, and I remembered that schoolhouse better than my own schools.  So I went looking for an episode to show my kids – any episode in which children were seen at the schoolhouse.  I picked a second-season episode, “At the End of the Rainbow,” in which Laura and her friend Jonah come up fools’ gold and mistake it for the real thing.  My kids took to the show right away, and started asking for an episode every night.  Previously they had not watched TV or any other screens before bedtime, and I had thought to show them just a little of the show, as a special thing to get us through quarantine.  For me it was a very temporary thing.

But here we are after a year of quarantine, having watched more than 200 episodes, many of them more than once.  We’ve now seen almost the entire series; we’re coming to the final episode later this week; and the kids have asked to start over from the beginning.

My wife Dess, who grew up without a TV, read all the “Little House” books as a girl.  I didn’t start reading them until last summer, when I read the third in the series, “Little House On the Prairie” – the one that takes place entirely in Kansas, before the Ingalls family moves to Walnut Grove.

I liked that book but a couple of weeks ago I read the sixth book in the series, “The Long Winter”, and I was immensely surprised at how good it was. 

I am very much a city mouse, hailing from a city that’s not too-far north, so for me this story about a very long winter of violent blizzards and steadily-diminishing food was completely engrossing.  I was astonished by the violence of South Dakota blizzards, and how suddenly and completely they descend on you.

Garth Williams

I recently attending a public zoom call about this novel, hosted by Annette Whipple and Cindy Wilson, authors respectively of The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion and The Beautiful Snow.  Some of the Midwesterners in attendance confirmed that blizzards out there really do descend on a house as a Laura describes.

As always when Laura Ingalls Wilder describes the physical world, she produces jewels.

Town and prairie were lost in the wild storm which was neither earth nor sky, nothing but fierce winds and a blank whiteness.

For the storm was white. In the night, long after the sun had gone and the last daylight could not possibly be there, the blizzard was whirling white. 

A lamp could shine out through the blackest darkness and a shout could be heard a long way, but no light and no cry could reach through a storm that had wild voices and an unnatural light of its own.

(“Alone”, 122-123)


The walls trembled a little and the shadows on them slightly quivered under the blows of winds that squealed along the eaves, split shrieking at the corners, and always roared like a waterfall. Almanzo took another stack of pancakes.

(“Free and Independent”, 259)


Before him, the black storm climbed rapidly up the sky and in silence destroyed the stars.

(“The Last Mile”, 294)


There were no more lessons. There was nothing in the world but cold and dark and work and coarse brown bread and winds blowing. The storm was always there, outside the walls, waiting sometimes, then pouncing, shaking the house, roaring, snarling, and screaming in rage.

(“It Can’t Beat Us”, 309)

Now, surviving physical hardship is one thing.  And this city mouse is duly impressed by all of that.  But for this child of the city, raised on TV, what was most foreign and impressive was how these people memorized music, poetry and speeches; how Pa Ingalls knew countless songs and could play them all on his fiddle; how his daughters danced to these tunes and regularly recited from memory entire texts that they’d learned in school, or psalms from the Bible; how the entire family sang hymns, easily transitioning from one to another. 

When I was growing up, the only thing we could recite from memory was the multiplication table. 

My wife, who grew up without a TV, has something of this ability still in her; she often comes up with a snatch of song lyrics, always appropriate to the occasion. 

When it was time for the Ingalls girls to climb the stairs and go to bed, Pa “marched” them up with this martial tune:

“March! March! Ettrick and Teviotdale!

Why, my lads, dinna ye march forward in order?

March! March! Eskdale and Liddesdale!

All the blue bonnets are over the border!

Many a banner spread flutters above your head,

Many a crest that is famous in story.”

Round and round they marched, Laura and Carrie and Grace, singing with all their might, thumping loud thumps of their shoes on the floor.

“Mount, and make ready, then,

Sons of the mountain glen,

Fight! for your homes and the old Scottish glory!”

They felt that banners were blowing above them and that they were marching to victory. They did not even hear the storm. They were warm to the tips of their toes.

Then the music ended and Pa laid the fiddle in its box. “Well, girls, it’s up to me to march out against this storm and make the stock comfortable for the night. Blamed if that old tune don’t give me the spunk to like fighting even a blizzard!”

(“October Blizzard”, 43)

Even without the fiddle, words remained strong stuff for them:

When study time was over, Ma took the Independent Fifth Reader. “Now,” she said, “let’s see how much you can repeat from memory. You first, Mary. What shall it be?”

“The Speech of Regulus,” said Mary. Ma turned the leaves until she found it and Mary began.

“‘Ye doubtless thought—for ye judge of Roman virtue by your own—that I would break my plighted oath rather than, returning, brook your vengeance!’” Mary could repeat the whole of that splendid defiance. “‘Here in your capital do I defy you! Have I not conquered your armies, fired your towns, and dragged your generals at my chariot wheels, since first my youthful arms could wield a spear?’”

The kitchen seemed to grow larger and warmer. The blizzard winds were not as strong as those words.

“You did that perfectly, Mary,” Ma praised her. “Now, Laura?”

“Old Tubal Cain,” Laura began, and the verses lifted her to her feet. You had to stand up and let your voice ring out with the hammer strokes of old Tubal Cain.

“Old Tubal Cain was a man of might,

In the days when the earth was young.

By the fierce red light of his furnace bright,

The strokes of his hammer rung…”

Pa came in before Laura reached the end. “Go on, go on,” he said. “That warms me as much as the fire.” So Laura went on, while Pa got out of his coat that was white and stiff with snow driven into it, and leaned over the fire to melt the snow frozen in his eyebrows.

“And sang, ‘Hurrah for Tubal Cain!

Our staunch good friend is he;

And for the plowshare and the plow

To him our praise shall be.

But while oppression lifts its head

On a tyrant would be lord,

Though we may thank him for the plow,

We will not forget the sword.’”

“You remembered every word correctly, Laura,” Ma said, shutting the book. “Carrie and Grace shall have their turns tomorrow.”

(“Cold and Dark”, 228-229)

I didn’t know the tunes to any of the songs in the novels, so I went looking for them on YouTube, and put them together in a playlist.

There was one song, “Roll the Old Chariot”, that Pa Ingalls chanted as he and some other men rode down a railroad track on a pump trolley.  The song is an old Negro spiritual that was often sung by the Salvation Army around the time that the novel was set. 

Garth Williams

Pa was on the car in a moment. “Let’s go, boys!” he gave the word as he gripped a handbar.

Mr. Fuller and Mr. Mead and Mr. Hinz took their places in a row, facing Pa and Mr. Wilmarth and Royal Wilder. All their mittened hands were on the two long wooden handlebars that crossed the handcar, with the pump between them.

“All ready, boys! Let ’er go gallagher!” Mr. Fuller sang out and he and Mr. Mead and Mr. Hinz bent low, pushing down their handlebar. Then as their heads and their handlebar came up, Pa and the other two bent down, pushing their handlebar. Down and up, down and up, the rows of men bent and straightened as if they were bowing low to each other in turn, and the handcar’s wheels began slowly to turn and then to roll rapidly along the track toward Volga. And as they pumped, Pa began to sing and all the others joined in.

“We’ll ROLL the O-old CHARiot aLONG,

We’ll ROLL the O-old CHARiot aLONG,

We’ll ROLL the O-old CHARiot aLONG.

And we WON’T drag ON beHIND!”

Up and down, up and down, all the backs moved evenly with the song and smoothly rolled the wheels, faster and faster.

“If the sinner’s in the way,

We will stop and take him in,

And we WON’T drag ON beHIND!

“We’ll ROLL the O-old CHARiot aLONG,

We’ll ROLL the O-old CHAR—”

“If the Devil’s in the way,

We will roll it over him,

And we WON’T drag ON beHIND!”

Smaller and smaller grew the dark handcar and the two rows of men bowing in turn to each other, and fainter and fainter the song came back over the glittering snow fields.

(“Pa Goes To Volga” – 107-109)

This Negro spiritual evolved into a sea shanty, with very different lyrics.

The lyrics to many of the songs in “The Long Winter” can be found online at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie Definitive Guide.

My YouTube playlist is here: 

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