The Long Winter (Little House)

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A Year in Reading: Chris Ware

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Though as I kid I’d read The Long Winter, I was really more familiar with the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder via the long-running NBC television series, which recast her work as a warm paean to family togetherness during the cocaine-dusted, wife-swapping 1970s (and a show now appropriately preserved in the golden amber of the Hallmark Channel). Bolstered by the anti-sentimentalism of art school, I’d somehow fallen in line with this received opinion, dismissing her work as innocent and sanitized, of no real value except as a way of passing one’s time in a false nostalgia for a Good Old Days that probably never existed. But during a recent snowstorm here in Oak Park, Illinois, vaguely remembering a detail of Wilder’s Long Winter – how the snow drifted so high that she could watch the feet of passersby from her attic window – I started rereading the 1940 book with my daughter Clara, just to pass the time during our own little blizzard.

Well, was I proved wrong. Really wrong. Not only by the book’s utter lack of sentimentality, but by the surprisingly lean, stark, and even occasionally self-deceiving personalities Wilder brings to life through her clear memory and clean prose. Warmth and love were indeed present, but they were a warmth and love that felt absolutely genuine, forged of clinging, human suffering, and tempered to a ring of authenticity by the details of close-quartered familiarity its characters endured. Sacrifice, self-denial and desperation blow through the book’s pages, and the frozen panic suffered by the Ingalls family during that 1880-81 South Dakota winter ended up feeling almost as immediate as the snowstorm framed by the windows of our 98% Energy-Star-rated-furnace-heated house, my daughter taking refuge under a blanket in a hinged ottoman as shelter from the real-er snow of Wilder’s words.

Once both storms had subsided, Clara and I started the nine-book Little House series from the beginning and set out on a tour of literary discovery that surprised and amazed me, from the grisly sweet early memories (the “pig-bladder” episode that every kid reader remembers) to her middle years following her possibly deluded father all over the midwest in search of a reliable land claim, to her onerous marriage and house-keeping with Almanzo Wilder. Looking back on the books as a single work, Wilder not only creates an almost sculptural sense of time’s passage – what it feels like to go from childhood to adulthood – but also seems to adapt her writing to the task, beginning with simpler words cradling simpler, childish images and ending with more detailed, complex, uncomfortable and disjointed chapters, the bone-lean accounting of her marriage in a semi-unfinished follow-up of her First Four Years with Almanzo in which their crops repeatedly fail, their house burns and a bereft neighbor asks Laura to make a gift of her only child acting as a bitter chaser to the whole.

Apparently I’m not alone in this rediscovery, as her work has inspired an explosion of post-NBC Ingalls Wilder-loving websites and memoirs, myriad fictionalized follow-up book series extending other characters’ lives (and I will nose-holdingly overlook the whole itchy connection of her daughter Rose Wilder to the Libertarian party though I won’t overlook recent scholarship which reveals her semi-fictionalized writing as a collaboration between her fact-flat mind and Rose’s more rounded powers of literary empathy) to her just this year being inducted, as a real literary writer, into the Library of America. Such a plaudit is justified. She breathes on the page as a clear-aired voice who speaks not only to children, but to the children that wii-playing/guitar-polishing/adventure-movie-watching America claims we can remain regardless of our age. In short, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells us, and tells us quite beautifully and bluntly, to grow up.

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