Books · Childhood learning · Laura Ingalls Wider

So You Think the Polar Vortex Was Bad?

The Long Winter was a Newberry honor book for 1941.

Have you  heard about the hard winter of 1880-81? Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder will remember it as the winter that 14-year-old Laura and her pioneer family endured in the remote Dakota territory.

Recurring white out blizzards began in October and continued until spring with little respite between storms. Temperatures dropped to 40 below, snow accumulated as high as the house, and the trains became stuck in the snow packed cuts, unable to get through with supplies. The Ingalls’ family’s coal and kerosene dwindled until there was none left. For months they spent every day all day huddled together in the small kitchen performing the laborious tasks of twisting hay into sticks to burn in the cookstove for warmth and grinding seed wheat in the coffee grinder to make flour.  They were finally rescued from starvation by the heroic efforts of two young men, one of whom would later become Laura’s husband.  And then the Chinook wind started blowing and spring came—as it always does.

Pa teaches Laura how to twist the hay into sticks which they burned in the cookstove for warmth.

Reading this book as an adult was an interesting and rewarding experience. So rewarding in fact that I have resolved to reread all nine books in the series—in order. I just finished the third book and will have something to say about the controversy surrounding them in the future. 

In the Little House books we see the westward journey through a child’s eyes. It is beautiful, exhilarating, sometimes dangerous and frightening,

But these books are much more than adventure stories. They convey a reverence for the natural world and are thought provoking in a way that makes sense to children (and adults as well). It’s no wonder that so many of us remember these books as such an important part of our growing-up years.

Countless sermons have been delivered and gallons of ink spilled by theologians pondering the thorny subject of free will.  In the first chapter of The Long Winter,  Wilder addresses the subject.

The story opens on a sunny, summer day. Laura has talked Pa into letting her help with the haying. By noon they have gathered the hay from the little haystacks (“haycocks”) and loaded it into the wagon.

Laura spies what she thinks is a haycock they missed. Upon inspection, however, it proves to be a muskrat house.

Pa notes he has never seen one so thick, and that means the muskrats have built their house to prepare for a hard winter.

Pa, how can the muskrats know?”  she asked.

“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said. “But they do. God tells them, somehow I suppose.”

“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” 

“Because,” said Pa. “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”

“I thought God takes care of us.”

“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us conscience and brains to know what’s right. But he leaves us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”

“Can’t Muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.

“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of.

And maybe for the first time in her life the child thinks about the serious subject of what it means to be human and she just may file the information away, for later consideration.

4 thoughts on “So You Think the Polar Vortex Was Bad?

  1. This idea of free will fits right in with a Bible study that I started teaching for Lent. I’m going to share the muskrat excerpt with my class next Sunday. And you’ve inspired me to re-read the whole series also. I loved those books as a child. I think our youth would be well served by having them read in grade school. This one touched me greatly.

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    1. I think you will be surprised at how much more wonderful these books are than you could imagine as a child. As an English teacher, you will marvel at the poetic use of the language and the skill with which she constructs the narrative. I’m so glad the post was meaningful to you. Isn’t it great to be in touch after all these years?

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  2. I adored those books and perhaps will read them again. Beautiful and thought-provoking post. And yes, I’m sure I missed the profundity of Pa’s words when I was a child. Or else I internalized them more than I realized.

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