The Long Winter, Chapter 13: We'll Weather the Blast!

Guest post by Susan Barton Malphurs

Another bone-chilling sunrise, more ravaging winds with “wild voices,” yet Pa sings. He calls to Caroline that he is headed to the barn, but the fires are going. Ma advises the girls to remain in bed until the house is warmer. Laura can’t rest. The howl of the rushing wind whirls about her mind.

The vicious nature of the weather encroaches on the sanctity of their home. “The frosted nails in the roof above her were like white teeth.” Laura escapes their snarl and abandons the warm bedcovers to join Ma downstairs. The warmth radiating from the hot stove is swallowed by the cold air, leaving the room still dark and chilled. Laura heats the frozen water in the wash basin so that she and Ma can scrub their faces.

With a snowy, rosy face Pa returns. He had used Ma’s clothesline for stability and navigation to and from the stable where he had to carve the snow away from the entire height of the door. Laura readies the breakfast table as he cleans up. Ma pours hot tea to go with their hotcakes, browned pork, dried-apple sauce, and sugar syrup. She rations the scarce bit of milk to Grace and Carrie with an admonition that they all remain thankful for even their sparse supply, “because there’ll be less before there’s more.”

After breakfast and a bit of warming around the stove, Laura and Ma set about morning chores. Seeing Laura hesitate before climbing the steps to the even colder two upper rooms, Ma suggests that Laura leave the beds unmade until the house warms. Pa fetches his wraps, despite Ma’s objections, and heads across the street to “hear the news” in the event someone might be lost. He assures his girls he knows the steps precisely.

Laura tries to watch for Pa, but he is enveloped by the snow before he ever moves away from their door. She resents being in town if it still brings isolation and the added danger of helping others… and says as much.

Ma tries to chase away the fear and unsettledness hovering in the frosty air with a turn toward faith. Is she seeking assurance for herself, or for the girls, or both? She challenges the girls to test their Scripture memory. Mary, Laura, and Carrie draw Bible verses from their hearts, reciting one after another. (I wonder how many of their verses came from the 23rd Psalm which Laura held fresh in her heart during the last storm.) Carrie soon concedes; next is Laura. Mary beams at Grace’s cheers and Ma’s praise. But her expression is quickly overshadowed, and she admits that she really hasn’t won. She can’t recall another verse either. Laura is ashamed of herself for wanting so desperately to win against Mary when she considers that her sister not only has a good mind, but is a good person. The light missing all morning from the room suddenly floods Laura’s heart. She would be a teacher! She would be the one to make Mary’s dreams of college come true.

The strike of the clock startles Laura and Ma from their thoughts, and they set to preparing the noon meal. Pa returns obviously subdued. Ma apologizes that she’s not been able to warm the house. He answers the lingering question of the day. It is 40 degrees below zero. At least no one is lost.

Pa, too, turns to faith, just as Ma had earlier, to cast off the weight of fear. Out comes the fiddle. The music accomplishes what the stove could not. In melody and harmony the Ingalls’ voices and spirits join singing assuring hymns, favorite hymns, rousing hymns until they are all on their feet in joyous praise.

“There’s a land that is fairer than day,

And by faith we can see it afar….”

Their eyes cannot see through the swirling snow driven by the relentless gales. But their hearts see clearly. They are not alone.

Posted in The Long Winter
6 comments on “The Long Winter, Chapter 13: We'll Weather the Blast!
  1. Linda says:

    I like how Ma always comes up with things to keep the girls minds happy. There were the thimble marks on the windows perhaps in Little House on the Prairie and another game again in perhaps Little Town on the Prairie, or was it when Pa thought of the social evenings for Laura?

    The older people were always washing faces after a sleep as they didn’t have morning showers like we do today.

  2. Carla says:

    The lack of water for homesteaders (re: shower comment above) always gives me pause. Even though there was a period of about 2 years when my family (we have 4 daughters) was H2O-challenged, it was still nothing like what homesteaders had to go through! The recycling and reuse of water the way they sometimes had to, ITD, really makes me wonder if it didn’t contribute to the typhoid & cholera.

  3. Susan says:

    @ Carla,
    im my mothers childhood in the 50s and 60s, it was usual for the family to bath once a week and in the beginning in a washtub in the kitchen, the only heated room.
    Only later did they get a bathtub/ bathroom with more than a toilet.
    My mother was living with her parents, her sister and sometimes other relatives in a three-room flat and they did not catch extraordinarily many diseases as children. I myself was certainly more often ill than she and her sister was though my family had heating in every room when I was a child 😉 we did not shower every morning. We children had a bath every two or three days and washed at the wash basin the other days.
    My mother still believes that showering every morning is a disproportionate modern habit. I notice a lot of elder persons indeed stop washing themselves every day or reduce the frequency of washing their hair to once a week or rarer.

    The pioneers were fastidious in keeping clean (of their bodies and clothes as well as dishes and shanty etc.).
    Not so long time ago all the things we think unhygienic these days – sharing dippers or mugs with others, eating from the same spoon etc. – were of no concern especially to children and did not harm them.

    What often worries me was drinking from the wells, the creek etc.
    There must have been living ameobia and other micro organisms living in the water that was partly drunken unheated.
    If you want to see amoebia under the microscope, you gather some water in a bottle and let the bottle stand in a warm place for some days. So in hot weather with and low water level I think this danger would have been quite real.

    But still I also wondered about the face washing mania. There are other body parts that certainly required more (intensive) washing than the face and one wonders about infections of these.

  4. naomi says:

    Not sure what you mean by ‘sharing cups and dippers didn’t harm them.’ Of course they did. This was one of many factors in the spread of epidemics and the very high infant/child mortality rate. (I don’t think you can compare your mother’s experience 50-60 years ago in a home that, even if it didn’t have a bathtub DID have plumbing and access to modern medicine, with life on the prairie 150 years ago.)

    People washed their hands and faces because that’s what showed. And I very much doubt that the average family at this time was ‘fastidiously clean’ about either body or home. It was simply not possible at a time when every drop of water had to be hauled from a well or creek and heated on the stove, and when homes were heated by stoves and fireplaces.

    But yeah .. thinking about this post got me thinking about Laura’s attitude towards cleanliness and tidiness in the books. She makes a very big deal about it. (And about how much tidier they are than other families.) During the long winter they make the beds every day — even though they are upstairs and unseen. (And even though they probably didn’t bathe at all for the entire winter, and didn’t wash or change their clothes.). At the beginning of “Plum Creek”, when Ma is a little anxious about living in a dug-out, Pa assures her that Norwegians are clean people. (But she still scrubs out the dug-out before they move in.) Moving into the surveyor’s house — same deal. The first thing Ma does it sweep the place out. Even when they live in a shack with a dirt floor, the floor is swept daily. She frequently makes a point of how slovenly Mrs. Brewster is. (And even Almanzo is ‘disgusted’ by the house.)

  5. Tracy Sapp says:

    They washed their clothes during The Long Winter. Laura writes that on a clear day they washed their clothing then Ma hung the clothes outside to freeze dry. Then the clothes were brought inside & sprinkled & rolled tightly. Ready to be ironed the next day.

    • naomi says:

      That was one bright day in the very early part of winter when they still had coal for the stove and plenty of food to eat. By February, when there was rarely more than half a day between storms and they were occupied with grinding wheat and twisting hay and having a hard time keeping the stove going at all, heating large tubs of water and scrubbing and boiling clothes was probably pretty low on their list of priorities. And bathing (or even undressing completely) in a room that was barely above freezing?