The Long Winter, Chapter 4: October Blizzard

At first you might think that this is just another one of those mornings where Laura wakes up to Pa’s trouble song while her bed’s covered in snow. (Remember that time in By the Shores of Silver Lake?) All right, to be fair, it’s just some ice on the quilt, and at least the house has a roof this time. But something else is different this time around, something about Pa’s sunflower song:

“Oh I am happy as a big sunflower (Slap! Slap!) That nods and bends in the breezes, Oh! (Slap! Slap!) And my heart (Slap!) is as light (Slap!) as the wind that blows (Slap! Slap!)”

I don’t think it diminishes the terror and absurdity of the situation one bit to say that this is hilarious. Because how else can you possibly respond to an October blizzard?  Besides getting dressed while your teeth are chattering and noticing that the snow has blown under the door, that is, which is what Laura does.

And then there’s this from Ma: “A b-b-b-b-blizzard!” Ma chattered. “In Oc-October I n-n-never heard of…”

For me this is one of the most indelible bits of Little House dialogue, one of the linchpins of my memory of this book. Without it maybe I could’ve vaguely recalled that the first big heap of the Heap Big Snow fell way too early, but thanks to Ma, I will forever remember that it happened in Oc-October.

The rest of the family gets up and gets dressed, and for a little bit things feel too hurried to dwell to much on grim details like the frost on the nails in the walls and the way Laura has to use the snow on the floor for the wash-basin. (Oh, but there will be plenty of time for that later!) Pa somehow manages to go out in the blur of snow and cold to do his chores and then bring in wood after breakfast.

Whatever they have for breakfast (bread?) isn’t as important as The Beans, which Ma had the foresight to soak the night before. And I ask you: has ever a single pot of beans done so much as this one? It’s dinner, supper, a steamy heat source, and an extremely comforting aromatherapy device. Pa says, “There’s nothing like good hot bean soup on a cold day.” Oh, Beans, you had me at “HOT.”

Never mind that in The Little House Cookbook, Barbara Walker quite sensibly points out that the bean soup that sounds so wonderful here is really just the simmered broth from the cooking process. “How good a soup it is depends on how cold you are, and how hungry,” she says. In other words, the wonder of The Beans is best left to the imagination.

Note: real cambric tea is lighter than this.

I did, however, just try Walker’s instructions for the cambric tea Ma gives to Grace.  Indeed it’s just “hot water and milk, with only a taste of tea in it,” as the book says. (Sadly, as I am an adult, it did not have enough tea in it for me, but never mind.) Walker mentions that “temperance crusaders deplored cambric tea as a way of introducing stimulants to the young,” but, as we’ll see, every now and then a kid can be overstimulated for her own good.

Anyway, it’s just like the Ingalls to make a cold day spent in a drafty shanty sipping tea and bean-water seem perfectly cozy. Pa tells Carrie and Grace the same stories that he used to tell Laura and Mary in the Big Woods (one bit I love: that he calls Grace “Blue-Eyes” the same way he called Laura “Half-Pint”), and later gets out his fiddle. But just the same way as the cold creeps in at the corners of the shanty, we’re always aware that things are dire—that it’s so cold that the snow that blows in from outside doesn’t melt, and that Ma is perhaps one mournful fiddle song from losing it.

But as it happens, Grace gets antsy and impatient in Ma’s lap (ha, guess why?!), and when she insists on running around she inspires Pa to get Laura and Carrie out of their seats and stomping around the shanty to Scottish marching songs. “They felt that banners were blowing above them,” the book says, “and that they were marching to victory.”  With this kind of energy and inspiration on their side, for a moment we’re sure it’s going to be another All’s Well that Ends Well situation.

Except, well, it doesn’t end: in the morning Pa is singing his sunflower song again, and the blizzard continues—two more long days and two more nights.  And though the book never gives the details of those two days, we can only guess that it must have consisted of more beans, more tea, more marching. Whatever it takes.


Previous chapters: 1: Make Hay While the Sun Shines, 2: An Errand to Town. 3: The Fall of the Year. To cover a chapter in this read-along, find out more here!

Posted in Cooking, The Long Winter
10 comments on “The Long Winter, Chapter 4: October Blizzard
  1. MamaHen says:

    I never noticed that Pa called Grace Blue Eyes. I’ll have to go back and re-read that.

  2. Wendy says:

    I ate “bean soup” during Little House Food Week and found it most enjoyable, with sour milk biscuits dipped in… but then, I had plenty of other food.

  3. Sandra Hume says:

    Having been in the (to scale) shanty at Ingalls Homestead, and having young kids of my own, the whole idea of Grace “running around” makes me a little bit crazy.

    You’re so right about that “Oc-October.” I swear I can even picture Karen Grassle saying it.

  4. Lauri says:

    First, the “wonder of the beans” and everyone in close quarters – oh my! At this point in the book, I wonder if the old Indian could be right. Though this seems like a nice break from the frantic work of the harvest. It will seem less snug and more suffocating as the book continues.

  5. Jeanine says:

    I am enjoying the recaps of the chapters – The Long Winter was never one of my favourites when I read the books as a child, but I have come to appreciate it more as an adult, and absolutely love the ending (and…sorry to jump ahead…whenever I mash potatoes I think about that dinner!).

    Wendy – I keep haunting your blog for the report on Little House Food Week!

  6. Linn says:

    I love reading your reflections on each chapter. I know these books (perhaps, especially this one since it was always one of my favourites) by heart and recognize each and every detail you mention, but it’s so interesting to hear someone else talk about them for a change.

  7. Cindy says:

    I recently rediscovered the Little House books and am surprised at how much I have enjoyed re-reading them as an adult. It really gives you some perspective on just how tough the winters would have been. I’m in Minnesota and already getting sick of winter, and I have untold amounts of distractions and creature comforts around me, compared to what they had. It’s amazing what they endured.

  8. Eileen says:

    Linn, agree wholeheartedly! I’ve read and reread all of these books but nothing is like discussing them with others who love them too.

  9. Carla says:

    Eileen, Linn, isn’t it great to be able to do that…discuss these books with others that love them? I actually love TLW, because whenever things get tough for me, I dig out this book & realize I have it made!

  10. I love reading this book in the hazy, hot, & humid summer days, to cool off in my imagination, if not in reality!

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  1. […] chapters: 1: Make Hay While the Sun Shines, 2: An Errand to Town. 3: The Fall of the Year, 4: October Blizzard. To cover a chapter in this read-along, find out more […]