The Long Winter, Literary Overview (Part 2)

The Long Winter, Literary Overview (Part 2)


In the intervening years between’Farmer Boy’and’By the Shores of Silver Lake,’the real Wilder clan had moved west and settled in southeastern Minnesota in the mid- 1870s. The real Almanzo,his brother Royal,and their sister Eliza Jane Wilder,arrived in Dakota territory in 1879 and filed adjoining claims on land about a mile north and west of De Smet. They spent the winter of 1879-1880,when the Ingalls lived in the surveyor’s house, back in Minnesota, then returned to Dakota Territory in the spring of 1880. According to the 1880 federal census,Eliza Jane,Royal,and Almanzo,were farmers living in Kingsbury County. But Almanzo, who was 23 in 1880,a full ten years older than Laura Ingalls,appears on the 1880 federal census twice. He was also boarding with a C.D.Peck in Beadle County,just west of Kingsbury County in De Smet, where he worked as a laborer in the railroad camp. His brother Royal was 33 in 1880. He opened a feed store in De Smet that year. It was right next door to the real Fuller’s Hardware. We’ll discuss their sister Eliza Jane later in the class. Wilder herself wasn’t sure how to reintroduce Almanzo’s character to readers in’The Long Winter,’ nor was she certain about how to bring Almanzo and Laura together in this book, although she felt it was necessary. “Laura and Almanzo are to meet when the blizzard closes the school,”she wrote Lane. “You remember?When the school wouldn’t follow Cap Garland and nearly got lost? I don’t know how it will work out,but I’m gonna have Laura go with Almanzo to town.” Wilder,however,abandoned this idea. In the final version of’The Long Winter,’Laura and Almanzo meet in a hayfield,reinforcing his connection to the land,and hers. The scene is entirely fictional. “A strange wagon stood there there,and on its rack was an enormous load of hay. On the high top load,up against the blinding sky, a boy was lying. He lay on his stomach,his chin on his hands and feet in the air. The strange man [Royal Wilder]lifted up a huge fork full of hay and pitched it onto the boy.It buried him,and he scrambled up out of it laughing and shaking hay off his head and his shoulders. He had black hair and blue eyes,and his face and his arms were sunburned brown.” The boy,his brother called him Manzo in this scene,stands high against the sky on the hay wagon and he calls down to Laura who stands with Carrie,lost in the tall grasses of the Big Slough. Notice that Wilder describes Almanzo as a boy in this passage.She shaved a few years off Almanzo’s age, worried perhaps that the real tenure difference in their ages would be unsettling or unappealing to young readers. As the scene progresses,Laura wants to run away and hide from the Wilder boys,but she stands her ground and talks to Manzo. He points Laura and Carrie in the right direction toward Pa’s hayfield,and in effect, rescues the girls. “Then his blue eyes twinkled down at Laura as if he had known her a long time.” Almanzo reappears in the scene with the American Indian man in Hawthorne’s store, a transitional scene that we’ll discuss in more detail in our next lecture. But for now I’ll just say this:Wilder writes this scene in third person objective,not third person limited from Laura’s perspective. The scene belongs to Pa and Almanzo.It moves out of Laura’s direct experience,and prepares readers for an even bigger shift in point of view later in the novel, in the chapter “Seed Wheat,” when Wilder writes entirely from Almanzo’s point of view. “In the back room behind the feed store,Almanzo was busy.He had taken saddles,harness,and clothes from the end wall and piled them on the bed. He had pushed the table against the cupboard,and in the cleared space,he had set a chair for a sawhorse.” This is a major shift in point of view,and subtly signal to readers that Almanzo is in fact a more important new character than even Cap Garland. The unfolding action here revolves around Almanzo,not Laura or even Pa. It introduces readers to a more masculine world.Even the dialogue sounds masculine,a bit rougher around the edges. “‘Roy,’he said after a while,’whittle me a plug to fit this knothole, will you?I want to get this job done before chore time.’ Royal came to look at the knothole. He rounded it with his knife,and chose a piece of wood that he would make a plug to fit. ‘If prices go up like you say,you’re a fool not to sell your wheat,’he remarked. ‘They’ll have the train running before spring.You can buy your seed back and make a profit like I’m figuring on doing.’ ‘You said that before,’ Almanzo reminded him. ‘I’d rather be sure than sorry. You don’t know when the train’ll be running,and you don’t know they’ll ship in seed wheat before April.’ ‘Nothing sure but death and taxes,’said Royal.’Seed time’s pretty sure to come around,’Almanzo said, ‘and good seed makes a good crop.'” Of course,a later shift to Almanzo’s point of view places readers directly in the middle of the most heroic scene in ‘The Long Winter,’when Almanzo and Cap Garland set out between blizzards to find a homesteader with a hoarde of seed wheat. They struggle against the elements,against time,against distance,and ultimately against a four-day blizzard which threatens to strike before they get their load back to town. “Almanzo thought that perhaps they had crossed the neck of Big Slough. He could not be sure where they were. He could Prince in the slowly moving bulk of the loaded sled. Beyond them the darkness was like a mist,thickening over a flat white world. Stars twinkled far away around part of its rim. Before him,the black storm climbed rapidly up the sky and in silence destroyed the stars.” The episode belongs to Almanzo,not Laura.The scene is factual,as Manly did go after the wheat to feed the town,risking his life. He got it before anyone went hungry, and he made this epic journey with Cap Garland. She went on to explain what she called the’stoicism of the people,’their acceptance of hardship and their occasional bravery, which defined her view of Almanzo and Cap. “Living with danger day after day people became accustomed to it.They take things as they come,without much thought about it and no fuss, and in a casual way.” So this scene,and its emphasis on how Almanzo,was always an essential part of Wilder’s vision of the book. But switching point of view,relating the unfolding action from Almanzo’s perspective rather than Laura’s, makes him more heroic and ultimately more worthy of Laura. I do want to add just one more observation about the characters of Almanzo and Cap. Despite the shifting point of view,which subtly conveys to readers Almanzo’s relative importance over Cap, both characters behave heroically, and this sets up a certain amount of tension between the text and the reader:which one of these two amazing young men will claim Laura’s heart? The romantic intrigue is subtle,never overwhelming the novel’s harrowing scenes of hardship and survival, something we’ll talk more about in the next lecture. And one last observation about Wilder’s switch in point of view in’The Long Winter’: it does,in fact,reinforce her portrait of the Ingalls family’s struggle for survival. It allows readers to see the Ingalls family and their suffering more objectively. Wilder wrote Lane that”we were shorter of food than anyone.” Yet within the context of the novel,the fictional family couldn’t have known this.Certainly Laura wouldn’t have known this at the time,nor would she have recognized the gradual physical toll their lack of food was exacting on them. Almanzo would,because he was an outsider who saw Charles Ingalls sporadically that winter. From him we get a riveting description of Pa that Laura’s character could never have credibly delivered. “‘I think there’s folks in this town that are starving,’ Almanzo stated. ‘I said starving.Take Ingalls.There’s six in his family.You notice his eyes?And how thin he was?'”Almanzo lets readers see Pa as others outside the Ingalls family saw him, and by extension,illustrates how desperate and dire the family’s circumstances really were. Wilder’s plot for’The Long Winter,’its new characters,and her strategic shifts in point of view served the book’s major themes of hardship and survival. This is a tough,even edgy book for the emerging young adult market in 1940. Wilder’s editor at Harper&Brothers worried about the title Wilder proposed: ‘A Hard Winter.’ She suggested a subtle change in the title, to’The Long Winter.’Wilder and Lane weren’t happy with the change.The book was about hardship,suffering,sacrifice,and ultimately perseverance. ‘The Hard Winter’ described the book’s story and themes much more accurately. As Rose Wilder Lane wrote George Bye: “My mother has written a hard book about the hard winter,and I think an attempt to conceal that fact from the book’s readers is worse than futile. My God if’The Hard Winter’as a title is too depressing,what about the book?” As we’ll see in the next lecture,Wilder’s themes in the book took the’Little House’series and their characters into new emotional territory,and tested the Ingalls family as they’ve never been tested before. As Wilder wrote in’Pioneer Girl’: “We would lie in our beds those nights, listening to the wind howl and shriek while the house rocked with the force of it and snow sifted in around the windows and through the nail holes. It is times like this that test people.”

local_offerevent_note September 3, 2019

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3 thoughts on “The Long Winter, Literary Overview (Part 2)”

  • So Enjoyable- Thank You. The Long Winter is my favorite in the series also. My thought regarding the Cap stories is that she wanted to pay Tribute to Cap- whom she genuinely admired and liked as a person and friend. He died so horribly and tragically young. So by "immortalizing" him as a gallant, heroic figure (which no doubt he was ) she ensured that this wonderful young man would have a kind of legacy -which had been sadly denied to him. I think we all love Cap .

  • Laura made the right decision with the title of the book. The Long Winter is much more appealing a title than The Hard Winter.

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