The Long Winter, Chapter 5: After the Storm

Great Auk

Great Auk

By guest contributor Sommer Sorenson

This chapter opens up on the morning after a three-day storm. It is silent, eerily so, and Laura is trying to make out why it seems so strange. With excitement she realizes the storm is over! It must have been so refreshing to no longer hear the sound of wind and snow on the walls. She excitedly tells Mary, “The blizzard’s over!”

When she jumps out of the warm bed, she finds that the cold is just as shocking and the heat of the stove is just not enough to warm the home and the water in the pail is almost completely frozen.  Life in a shanty home for sure.

Pa has already seen some of the damage done to their little shanty home during this blizzard and continues to be concerned about this winter.  “I never knew a winter to set in so early.”  He still feels very uneasy, despite Ma’s encouraging, “We’ll have Indian summer yet.”  Ma seems to feel his worries are unnecessary, but Pa just can’t shake it…something is just not right.  He is especially interested in some stray cattle that he has seen by the haystacks.  So, after warming up a bit he heads out see to them.  Ma suggests that Laura go out with Pa, just in case he needs a bit of help driving the cattle off.  Laura jumps quickly to help him and wraps herself in Ma’s shawl which covers her from head to foot.  I wonder if in some ways this is a sign of how Laura is still not aware of how hard this winter may end up being.

I think the next scenes are some of the most distressing ones in the whole of this book (at least for me).  As Laura comes around the corner of the stable she sees Pa and then the cattle.  It startles Laura enough to cause her to just stop and stare.  The sight of cattle just standing there was so odd.

“The cattle were standing in sunshine and shadow by the haystacks–red and brown and spotted cattle and one thin black one. They stood perfectly still, every head bowed down to the ground. The hairy red necks and brown necks all stretched down from bony-gaunt shoulders to monstrous, swollen white heads.”

What an odd scene.  “They did not seem like real cattle.”   As Laura watches and wonders at what has happened, Pa goes up to the herd and looks. This seems to be one more thing to add to his uneasiness.  He then goes up to each cattle, brushing the snow-covering from their faces.  Suddenly, with each one, they come to life again, bellowing and running off. 

After a time, Pa has Laura return to the shanty while he checks on the haystacks.  When Laura comes in she tries to explain what she’s seen to Ma and Mary, but they don’t believe her.  “That can’t be!” Ma exclaimes and Mary’s infuriating response is: “It must be one of Laura’s queer notions.”  Laura is frustrated and unable to truly explain what she feels.  I love what she states at this point: “She felt that somehow, in the wild of the night and storm, the stillness that was underneath all sound on the prairie had seized the cattle.”  What a frightening thought. It must have been so upsetting to have your words not believed.  But Pa explains a little later that it was actually their own breath freezing over their eyes and noses that caused the problem for the cattle.  This idea shocks Laura but Pa assures her they are all okay and will find their way home.

Pa lightens things up by bringing out a sweet little bird from his pocket that he found in one of the haystacks.  It is described as looking like a “little” Great Auk. (Though it’s probably an ancient murrelet or a dovekie.) This little creature got blown off course it seems during the blizzard and now was unable to get back up in the air with no water near it.  It gives the family a chance to get their minds off unpleasant things and to enjoy the sweet bird.  They set it in a box and tend to it.

The chapter starts to close with Pa pondering again about this sudden blizzard in October and his feelings of uncertainty.  Ma of course encourages and reassures him, ever the optimist: “We’ll likely have nice warm weather now.  It’s beginning to warm up a little already.”

As we leave the chapter we are shown once again the nature of the Ingalls family.  There are jackrabbits just outside, an easy dinner.  However, they all are loath to kill them for their meal “when they came because they had to, they had to find shelter.”  Their giving nature is beautiful.  Little do they realize how meager their meals will become in the very near future.

***

Previous 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 here!

Posted in The Long Winter
3 comments on “The Long Winter, Chapter 5: After the Storm
  1. MamaHen says:

    I never likes this chapter because of the cattle. It must have been very scary and surreal.

  2. Sommer says:

    Loved the added info about the little bird! Thanks 🙂

  3. Another thought from Laura in this chapter leaves an impression on me of her insightfulness. After Pa reports to Ma about the cattle, Laura gasps, “Pa! Their own breath! Smothering them.” The irony was not lost on Laura’s young heart that the same life-giving breath could also be suffocating the cattle… so indicative of Laura’s depth of thought and compassion.