It was fitting that I read "The Long Winter" while visiting family in Minnesota. It was bitterly cold, the streets were packed with snow and the wind chill was below zero. As I read, I could hear the wind howling outside, and the harsh winter of 1880-81 didn't seem like that long ago.

Book six in the Little House series tells how the Ingalls family survived numerous blizzards while homesteading near De Smet, South Dakota. Pa first sensed that the season would be severe when he was harvesting hay and he saw the thick mud walls of a muskrat house.


Pa was shaking his head. "We're going to have a hard winter," he said, not liking the prospect.

"Why, how do you know?" Laura asked in surprise.

"The colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses," Pa told her. "I never saw a heavier-built muskrats' house than that one."


A few weeks later, a wise old Indian stopped by the town's store to warn the white folks about winter. He said there would be heavy snow and strong winds for seven months. Indeed, that winter brought many long blizzards, and with each one, the town's supplies went down. All of the animals had fled the area, so hunting was scarce, and the snow was so deep that the train couldn't get through to deliver food or coal.

(While reading this, I remembered that the closest thing we currently have to scarcity in winter is when the local store runs out of bread and milk for a day because of a panic over snow.)

Like the others in the series, this book has good reminders about just how hard homesteading was. Pa and the other pioneers worked long hours to get the fields ready for crops, and they had to build everything from scratch. When the family ran out of coal to burn for heat, Pa figured out a way to twist hay into sticks, so they could burn that. When they ran out of kerosene, Ma figured out how to make a "button candle" using axle grease.


"We didn't lack for light when I was a girl, before this newfangled kerosene was ever heard of."

"That's so," said Pa. "These times are too progressive. Everything has changed too fast. Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves — they're good things to have but the trouble is, folks get to depend on 'em."


And when there wasn't any wheat or flour left in town, well, luckily Almanzo Wilder had the courage to go and try to find some more.

Any Little House fans reading this will perk up at the name of Almanzo, because that is who Laura will eventually marry. This book is the first one where Laura seems to notice him, which was sweet.

I think the purpose of this book was to show how dangerous those prairie winters were. Neighbors had to work together and help each other to survive. In the modern, self-involved age we live in, this story was a reminder of how a small town used to be.