Book In Common: The Long Winter – determined to stay alive, determined to keep their friends alive, two men set out on an impossible journey

Larry Wahl once told me, “you better be careful what you ask for…”

He was so right.  Which one of you smart-asses asked for rain?

Oh, I guess we all did, ‘scuse me!

I am not in Chico right now. My husband and I have come with our son to get him settled back into his dorm room at college. We had planned to come home today, but all day yesterday the snow kept falling, the roads started to disappear, and we were wondering if we might be stuck here longer than we figgered.

It’s all pretty, until it starts to close in on you, and you can’t do what you want!

Makes me think of the Ingalls, trapped in their little house, flirting with carbon dioxide poisoning.  Christmas is somewhat jolly, but the supplies quickly run out.

Their neighbors, the Wilder brothers, have secretly been keeping them supplied with wheat, while also driving out of town on sunny days to fetch more hay for the townspeople to burn for heat. They are storekeepers, so they sell the hay to make money, but they won’t part with their seed wheat, afraid the trains will arrive too late for Spring planting.

But Almanzo realizes the town is hanging by a thread. He and his brother have plenty for themselves, but if they tried to supply the whole town, everybody would quickly starve.

The Wilders were raised in a Christian house, and have the appropriate feelings of guilt. They’ve also heard rumors of a homesteader some 40 miles from town who had raised a huge amount of wheat and must have it stored up – a rumor nobody even remembers where it came from.

But it plagues Almanzo’s mind, even with his older brother forbidding him, he decides to team up with one of Laura’s classmates, Cap Garland, the boy who had gone to the store to get the men when the school children were lost in the blizzard.

Almanzo has good horses and sturdy sleds, so the two set out the first sunny day, using their intuition and bits of rumor. They look for a lone cottonwood tree, the only landmark available on the snow covered prairie.

Thinking of my husband or sons setting out on a mission like this chills me to the bone. Some people are of the mindset, when something needs to be done, they must do it. My husband is not foolhardy, but I know he would do something like this if I didn’t stop him. When Mr. Ingalls muses about going along with the boys, we see a side of Laura’s mother that frightens the girls – she is fierce and dark, maybe a little crazy, when she forbids her husband to go.  He’s older than Wilder and Garland, and worse than that, starvation has reduced him to a shadow of himself. His hands are so cut and stiff from twisting hay she is afraid he would be unable to handle a horse.


So one sunny morning, Wilder and Garland hitch up their sleds and head out of town. Although it starts out like a jaunt, the prairie trails are lost under the snow, it’s treacherous going. Everywhere, the prairie grass holds up the snow, creating the illusion of solid ground. Again and again their horses and sled founder in the unfamiliar terrain.  They must unhitch the horses and tramp down the snow in front of them to lead them out, then drag the sled out and re-hitch it. A journey of 40 miles would not be much in good weather, but they struggle for hours.

By noon the sun is weak overhead, but darkness loiters in every corner of the sky. They have passed the cottonwood tree, hoping they are going in the right direction, but they are still uncertain. They are freezing cold, sometimes jumping off their sleds to run alongside to stay warm, beating their free arm across their chest. They have just about given up and thought about turning back to town when Almanzo thinks he sees a brief flash of light in a snowbank up ahead. As they struggle toward the snow bank, they both see the blink of light again – the opening and closing of a door. They plow through the snow until they hit the snowbank – a snow covered “soddy”.

Pounding on the outside of the little earthen house, they are greeted by a very startled homesteader. Living alone, he has not seen another soul since he went into De Smet for supplies in Fall. He has spent months buried in the snow, making his way out only to feed his livestock (no, she never talks about going to the bathroom in any of her books). A single man, he has plenty to eat and is able to keep his house warm enough with the little supply of coal he brought home in Fall.

Almanzo notices a door at one end of the soddy, although the man’s bed is in the main room, so he assumes this is the man’s granary. The man chatters freely, being very lonely, about how he raised a huge crop of wheat over Summer.  When he asks what brings the men out this far from town in such weather, they don’t hesitate to tell him – they have a town full of starving people who need his wheat. They are ready to pay “top dollar.”

But the man is not interested in money. His face shows his dilemma – of course he cares that these people are in trouble, but he could easily be in the same jam himself if he does not have wheat for Spring and the trains don’t come. You can’t eat money, but, as the Ingalls have found living in town – it sure disappears fast when you don’t have more coming in.

It is easy to see that Laura Ingalls Wilder had a great amount of respect and admiration for Almanzo Wilder, who would later become her lifelong partner, and Cap Garland, a boy on whom she had a mild crush on first meeting. She portrays them as men among men, even at their young age. I know it’s just a book, but I like them too. They are thinkers.

They would be ashamed to go home without wheat, but that is not the first thought on their mind. They know there are people starving in town, they can’t go back without the wheat.

So they pressure the man, unashamed. They offer him more money, reasoning, he will  have enough money to make it another year without planting if he has to. Seeing that his needs will be covered, he finally relents to sell them enough wheat to get the townspeople through the rest of Winter.

It’s a tough rule of survival – sure you have to help others, but you better never depend on help from anybody else.  You really have to look out for Number One, because who would help the others if you were lost?

The three make their deal, and they all feel good about it. Their host serves them a simple but hot and plentiful meal of his own bread and meat, and then they quickly go about loading the wheat on their sleds. The man expects them to stay overnight, but they remind him – the calm will not last long, lately there has only been one or two days between storms that could last a week. They must get back with food, or people could starve.

With just a few hours before sunset, Wilder and Garland feel more confident than when they started – they are fairly certain of their position, and of the town. Within a short time they find the old cottonwood tree, but the sun is completely gone, and the strange darkness begins to overtake the stars – another blizzard may hit them before they can make it to town.

I bet you know they made it back, but it’s worth reading about the kind of determination it takes to complete a task like this.

But the best part is what happens when they get back, I’ll tell you about that later.




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