As this chapter begins, the weather machinations are clicking along: the hot September days of haying end abruptly with three days of rain, and then, after that, the first frost.
“My goodness,” Ma said shivering, while she laid kindling in the stove. “And this is only the first day of October.”
The more I read the Little House books, the more I notice that Ma is kind of like a Greek chorus in a wool shawl. Ma will always tell you what’s going on and whether or not you should worry. (Usually you should, unless it’s all well that ends well.)
Laura goes out to get water from the well, and looks out at the frost, which is both breathtaking and deadly, and gorgeously described. It’s a brief moment, I know, but it’s one of dozens that make The Long Winter really a Little House book, and not just a story about the Hard Winter of 1880-1881. Lots of other people could write about that winter, complete with its heroic themes about the triumph of the human spirit against the elements and blah blah. But I love that the familiar refrain of the seasons is still played.
Pa announces that it’s time to get in the harvest, though there won’t be much of it this first year. The yield is: five bushels of potatoes, a gallon of canned tomatoes, two quarts of green tomato pickle, “lots of turnips,” whatever that means, early a bushel of beans, six ripe pumpkins, and, well, some corn. Pa jokes that it’ll probably be a teacup’s worth. Laura seems to think it’ll be enough food for them with Pa’s hunting. We’ll find out soon enough that she’s counted her chickens before they’re hatched (or, really, her geese before they’re shot).
Side note: has anyone ever eaten a raw turnip? I tried this summer, and I guess it’s an acquired taste. To me it was like biting into a giant pencil eraser, a bitter eraser with top notes of wet shoe and sadness. But I did it because of this line, which appears in this chapter: “Carrie loved to eat a raw turnip.” Aw, Carrie. She’s shy and sensitive but she’s still a frontier kid with her turnip-eatin’ ways. And I love that line.
All throughout the harvest Pa is rushing around, making sure that the corn is cut and the pumpkins are brought in (“I feel in a hurry. As if there was need to hurry,” Pa said tried to explain. I used to think that this was just Pa’s instinct, the muskrat part of his brain kicking in. But when I went back and re-read By the Shores of Silver Lake recently, I noticed all the famous-last-words sort of things he’d say about the winter weather in this new place. Why, it won’t be like Minnesota! Three degrees west is as good as one degree south! At the New Year’s dinner in the surveyor’s house, he says, “If this is a sample of a Dakota winter, we’re all lucky we came west.” Oh, Pa. Now I can’t help but think that ever since he laid eyes on that muskrat house, the wheels have been turning in his head.
Anyway, he goes off to shoot some geese, and while he’s gone Ma gets the notion to make a pie with one of the green pumpkins left in the garden from the frost and surprise Pa with it. And here we must briefly diverge for a few items of PIE TALK because, well, we are compelled:
- According to my haphazard web research, it’s possible Ma based her idea on mock apple pie recipes devised by westward-bound pioneers who used soda crackers. (This article suggests that the recipe originated in the 1850s.) Much later, the mock apple pie recipe on the Ritz Crackers box would become popular in the 1930s and 1940s—some accounts say that it was because apples were expensive during the Depression, others say that they were rationed during WWII. Either way, it’s likely that when The Long Winter first came out, readers would’ve found something familiar about Ma’s clever pie hack.
- In her green pumpkin pie recipe in The Little House Cookbook, Barbara Walker admits if you don’t grow your own pumpkins it’s a little tricky to score an unripe one. This fall I’d tried asking around my city farmer’s market, but found I was about a week too late. I did find several market vendors who would’ve let me special-order one had the timing worked out, so maybe next fall I’ll try.
- This blogger made a green pumpkin pie and reports her somewhat mixed results, though there are some handy tips in the comments.
Okay, so the pie’s in the oven. In the meantime, there’s a few more excellent Ingalls family moments. In just a few lines here and there we get a really nuanced portrait of who Laura is at 13: impulsive enough to try to “dodge between the raindrops” instead of wearing a shawl when she runs out to get the pumpkin from the field, but restrained enough (barely!) to keep from “flying to pieces” during the hated sheet-sewing chore.
I won’t even go into the unspoken bitterness that comes with sheet-sewing, at least some of which is caught up in the fact that the one person who could stand to sew those horrible seams it is now blind, and thus gets to knit instead and give totally unhelpful answers to hypothetical questions like why can’t sheets be made wide enough? Which really is just another way of asking why muslin has to be so stupid and narrow, Mary, so shut up!
(Okay, so I did go into the unspoken bitterness.)
And then, then, Laura’s needle slips through a hole in the thimble and sticks her in the finger! Oh my turnips, this stuff made me so glad I wasn’t a teenage girl in 1880 because I wouldn’t have been able to keep quiet the way Laura did. But of course, all this helps give us a sense of how Laura will evolve through the winter.
Pa doesn’t return from hunting in time for dinner, but he finally shows up for supper empty-handed (except for his gun) with sobering news: “Not a goose or duck on the lake,” he says. No other kind of game, either: “Every living thing that runs or swims is hidden away somewhere. I never saw country so empty and still.” I’m only quoting a little here, but Pa’s entire speech at this juncture is really worth reading aloud.
But there’s still the pie, which comes as enough of a surprise to Pa to stir him out of his deep worry. He even thinks it’s apple pie, until Carrie gets to announce: “It’s pumpkin! Ma made it out of green pumpkin!” Happiness ensues. Pie saves the day!
But lest we think the threat of the worst winter ever has simply been forgotten, the family eats the pie slowly, trying to make it last. It’s a very Little House way of indicating foreboding. “That was such a happy supper that Laura wanted it never to end,” the book says, and when the supper ends, Laura stays awake in bed to prolong the happiness. All is warm and cozy, except for that drip of water on her face as she drifts off to sleep. Oh, but never mind! Everything is wonderful. Something’s not right.
For further reading (and eating): This zucchini pie recipe uses the same basic principles that Ma’s pie did, so if you want to try something similar without having to wait for another pumpkin crop, this might be worth a shot!