Book In Common: The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder: brings back childhood

No matter how we “progress” as a society, we are still beholden to Nature. If you didn’t experience the drought hysteria this year, you weren’t paying attention. 

Now watch, as it becomes flood hysteria.   Here in Chico, you will see boards laid out across lawns so people can get from their front doors to their cars. You will see poop float in yards. You will see flooded intersections. Mark my words, the weather turns around with a vengeance up here in the North State. Mother Nature does her ranting and raving up here, where she thinks nobody’s watching.

The nice thing about our weather is, it doesn’t last for long. That cold snap was hard, but it was over so fast, it took me a couple of days to realize I could take the extra blanket off the bed and stop  putting styrofoam in the windows at night. I still take my plants in from the porch at night because I don’t want to get out of the habit – it only took a couple of nights to burn the daylights out of my spider plants. They’re still alive but they look like props from The Addams Family. 

This morning I woke up to the steady drip outside the windows, but when I finally got outside with the dogs I found it was more of a mist,  my clothes were hardly wet when I came back in. But cold and miserable, don’t feel like working out there, nothing much to do anyway besides rake leaves, which are heavy and wet. 

So I can indulge myself with a little reading. I’ve perused the first chapter of “The Long Winter,” and it’s so familiar. Yes, I’ve read it before, but it’s also about a little girl just like me. I know this little girl. We share all the same interests. We love the outdoors, bugs and birds and even snakes. We love the smell of hot grass on a Summer day. We love our sisters and our parents and grandparents. We like to work and play until we are worn out.

Laura is 13 years old and she lives with her parents and three sisters on her father’s “claim”, a piece of land lost in the middle of the endless prairie. He hopes to work and own the land some day. It is the end of Summer, and Pa is cutting hay with his new mower machine. He needs feed for his livestock through the winter and hopes to cut a little extra hay to have on hand for sale to newcomers in Spring. The machine is wonderful, but cost him so much he has no more money for helpers. Besides, he tells  Laura – everybody else is so busy with their own work they don’t have time. There are no spare men. 

My grandfather was a farmer out in Glenn County. I knew about nuts and rice, I watched the machines. I even watched an old Mennonite couple my grandfather hired to cut his alfalfa one year because they still used mules, and he wanted us to see how it was done in the old days. But he did not farm much anymore, he told us, it’s work for younger men.

Laura is small, Pa calls her “half-pint.” When I was small, my name was “Bug”. I don’t know if it was because I was small or annoying, but everybody called me that. My cousin Charley still calls me “Bug”. None of you are allowed to call me “Bug,” got that?

Laura sees that  Pa is struggling to get the hay done. He can do it, but it’s slow going as he has to jump up and  down from the hay wagon  to load  it and them tamp the load down. Laura begs to help, but Pa tells her she has to get Ma’s permission.

Ma is very hung up about what is proper for little girls. For one thing, she warns them to keep their bonnets tied on firmly lest they should end up “brown as Indians!” Not proper. Working in the fields, Ma feels, is  for “foreign women.”  White American  women were not supposed to work in the fields, they were “above that.” Yeah, there’s subtle hints of the past in this book. That’s one of the things that makes these great books – they show things changing, for better or for worse. Life was not perfect in the old days, I’m glad to live in the present for many reasons. Ma finally gives  her permission because she is proud  that Laura wants to help. 

The past is not so far  behind for me.  When I was a little girl, the ‘N’ word was used very freely, as every part of speech. We didn’t even know it was a racial slur, people actually still used it as a name for black dogs. “Mexican” was a racial slur. I was teased because my dad was half Mexican, even  though he had a very pronounced Kentucky accent. The kids taunted us off the school bus with “bean belly” when they felt mean and the bus driver didn’t flinch to stop them.  Oh well, when we got our chance, we teased them about stuff that’s not politically correct either, tit for  tat. The playground is still where kids learn to be tough, and stick up for themselves, and pick on any weakness they find in their friends, just like the old days. One day two kids would be hucking dirt clods at each other and the next day they’d be ganged up against some other kid, hucking dirt clods at him. The adults just shook their heads and put everybody’s nose in the corner.   In five minutes we were all friends again, even the Portagees and the Mexicans.

Girls had to wear dresses at school, but that was the only injustice we suffered. We were still allowed to run and play with the boys, and one girl I remember, a big redhead named  Laurie, used to beat the crap out of all of us. Our favorite game was chasing down boys and making them kiss Laurie.  They fought like hell.  When the bell rang we’d go in all bloodied up, our teachers didn’t even seem to notice, unless somebody was crying or accusing. They’d look at our clothes and roll their eyes and turn to the blackboard.  My grandma finally quit buying me leotards, they never lasted a day.  She’d  ask me what happened to them and I’d blame whatever boy we’d  been chasing. 

Oh, is that so...” she’d always say, with a funny smile. She was a horrible kid, wore boy’s clothes, and bullied all the other kids. Came home after dark all dirty, worried her mother half to death.  One time she was walking across a slough in the dark, over an old gas pipe that ran a couple of feet above ground. That was forbidden by her parents, but she did it all the time.  She told us kids she liked to pretend she was on a high wire. One night she fell to her figurative death – into two feet of gucky water, had  to go home to her mother looking and smelling like a swamp rat.

My great grandma was the picture of femininity. She made all her own  clothes, knitted her own  lace, etc. I have doll clothes she made from scraps that look like they were bought at the finest shop. I wonder what it was like for her to have such a Tom-boy  as my grandma. She must have been a good mom. In the pictures she always has a smile that says, “I love you!”

Another time, riding her bicycle across a neighbor’s property in the dark – also forbidden – my grandma didn’t see the neighbor had installed  a new chain link gate at the bottom of the hill. She did not have brakes on her old bike. When  she’d tell us that story, she’d  always lift the curls above  her eyes to show us the perfect little ‘x’ the chain link left on her forehead.

I’ve seen a picture of her, wearing knickers and a cap, standing on top  of a rock pile holding a switch like she was the lord  of the playground. It made her happy to know we didn’t take any crap on the playground.  She felt girls should be able to wear pants, but it was actually decided by the district. That finally happened when I was about third grade.

My grandma only spanked  for dangerous or mean stuff. She wanted us to have fun, be unafraid – even if we scared the daylights out of her on occasion.  She’d  try to tell us her old-fashioned values – some of them racist, sexist, even hateful – but she knew the world was changing, and she didn’t want us to be left out.  She had not bowed to the norm when she was young, and she didn’t expect us to either.

I think what I got from my family which was echoed in the Ingalls-Wilder books was “be a good person, be the best person you can be. Be kind, be good, be yourself.” 











2 thoughts on “Book In Common: The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder: brings back childhood

    • It always was – after dark, people would get pretty paranoid, shotguns would be propped next to bedsteads, phones would ring in the middle of the night with warnings of prowlers. Everybody knew about the Clutter family killings. Wandering around out there in the middle of the night was a good way to get your ass shot off.

      My uncle inherited the farm, it changed hands between cousins. The house got really bad termites, and looked bad for years. Lately somebody has put a new roof, new siding and new windows all the way around. They’ve planted new trees in the orchard next to the house. The windmill is still there, one of the only ones left standing in the area. The barn was badly damaged in a windstorm when we were still kids and my uncle had it torn down for safety. The garage and the old shop disappeared sometime in the last 10 years, they weren’t safe anymore.Somebody tore out the walnut orchard, that was too bad – but walnuts have to be properly taken care of or they just die anyway.

      Laura Ingalls Wilder books are for kids – Willa Cather id more for adults. “My Antonia” is a good one.

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