The Long Winter: Cold Comfort; Or, In Which I Don't Even Try To Fight The Metaphor

Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick reads 'The Long Winter', the Laura Ingalls Wilder classic wherein our heroine Laura twists hay while the sun don't shine.

The mowing machine's whirring sounded cheerfully from the old buffalo wallow south of the claim shanty, where bluestem grass stood thick and tall and Pa was cutting it for hay. I ask you: have you ever heard a statement of such dread foreboding, of such grave intimations of abject harm, of such pathos and heartache and misery? In the days when your 401-K was booming, I know you would have answered, Um, yes. But unfortunately, now we know quite well what can follow a booming growth season, one in which we busily cut our bluestem for hay in the warm weather, believing in the next season, the sun above will restore it with cheerful regularity.The Long Winter, for those of you who (shame!) never made it the entire way through the Little House series, picks up with the family when Laura is fourteen, and tells the story of an epic winter that strikes the tiny town of De Smet, South Dakota, nearly starving out all of its inhabitants. When I first picked up the book for a Fine Lines reread, I was quite sure that I'd be interested mostly in the domestic details of the Ingalls family (always a dependable fix for those addicted to frontier porn): the twisting of hay to for makeshift "logs" when the coal runs out, grinding the wheat all day in the coffee grinder because without the constant labor, there wouldn't be enough to make bread; making a green pumpkin pie when the first frost kills the crop; finally getting a Christmas barrel filled with calico scarves and salt pork once the "Chinook" blows, the spring comes and the trains start running. (Let's also not forget that this is the book where Almanzo and Laura first meet cute, when she and sister Carrie stumble upon him, twinkling blue eyes and all, haying before the winter sets in.) However. As dedicated to such joys as ever, I cannot help but at this juncture read the work primarily as a treatise about the perils of globalization, government oversight, concentration of power in the hands of unregulated industries, resource-related market volatility, and oats. 1. The Claim When we catch up with them, Ma and Pa (and their De Smet neighbors) have just entered their era's version of a Fannie Mae-backed mortgage, a homestead claim — meaning simply that, in exchange for breaking and settling the land, the settlers will own it. Those of us who have been devoting the requisite amount of attention to the Ingalls over the years know that this is a step up from the subsistence level the family has previously enjoyed — first, from the Little House in the Big Woods, a Wisconsin cabin where Pa trapped, hunted and fished out all the family's needs; then to the Banks of Plum Creek, where Pa first broke ground as a farmer; then to the Shores of Silver Lake, where Pa worked on the railroad in order to earn the money to buy the claim in the first place. By taking the claim, like all settlers, they've now entered into an uneasy relationship with both the market and the government. Whereas before, they depended utterly on themselves, they're now part of the landscape of both the town and the market — their livelihood and labors intextricably linked to what the railroad bringeth and the railroad taketh away. This is of course, progress of sorts, one in which the Ingalls' world expands immeasurably from the small cabin where it began, where the Ingalls might spend all winter alone with only a bear for company, and no schoolteacher for the girls but Ma. But taking the claim also leaves them exposed in a way they never were in their snug log cabin — literally, since the claim shanty is only a shack covered with tar paper. It's a housing crisis of its own kind, a fact brought home soundly as Pa, worried, examines a muskrat house that's been built thicker than one he's ever seen in his life:
Laura put her hand on the wall of their house. The coarse plaster was hot in the hot wind and sunshine, but inside the thick mud walls, in the dark, the air must be cool. She liked to think of the muskrats sleeping there. Pa was shaking his head. "We're going to have a hard winter," he said, not liking the prospect. "Why, how do you know?" Laura asked in surprise. "The colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses," Pa told her. "I never saw a heavier-built muskrats' house than that one." Laura looked at it again. It was very solid and big. But the sun was blazing, burning on her shoulders through the faded, thin calico and the hot wind was blowing, and stronger than the damp mud smell of the slough was the ripening smell of grasses parching in the heat. Laura could hardly think of ice and snow and cruel cold. "Pa, how can the muskrats know?" she asked. "I don't know how they know," Pa said. "But they do. God tells them, I suppose." "Then why doesn't got tell us?" Laura wanted to know. "Because," said Pa, "we're not animals. We're humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves." Laura said faintly, "I thought God takes care of us." "He does," Pa said, "as far as we do what's right. And He gives us a conscience and brains to know what's right. But He leaves it to us to do as we please. That's the difference between us and everything else in creation."
How one manages to successfully trade their independence for a larger interdependence — without regular heads-up from God that a cold season is coming — is the great question of this novel. (Can we get a volunteer for someone to Xerox that and send it to Hank Paulson, please?) Still, that doesn't mean that Pa is caught out completely. He's a smart guy, and, after a cold snap kills all their ground crops, he is disquieted by the fact that geese flying away too high to shoot, then that all the animals have departed: "Every living thing that runs or swims is hidden away somewhere. I never saw country so empty and still." After the first blizzard, he and Laura see oxen standing patiently by haystacks, then realize their heads were frozen over with ice and snow. Pa has to break the ice to free the poor beasts — "Pa! Their own breath! Smothering them!" — and that cements it: "I don't like it," Pa said, slowly shaking his head. "I don't like the feel of this weather. There's something..." He could not say what he meant and he said again, "I don't like it. I don't like it at all." But again, you don't really know the truth for sure until an Indian confirms it. Here's the one that wanders into the general store to tell the townspeople to batten down — a remarkably nice gesture, considering that many of his brethren have been forcibly marched off the land to clear it for the settlers in the first place: The Long Winter: Cold Comfort; Or, In Which I Don't Even Try To Fight The Metaphor
He was a very old Indian. His brown face was carved in deep wrinkles and shriveled on the bones, but he stood tall and straight. His arms were folded under a gray blanket, holding it wrapped around him. His head was shaved to a scalp-lock and an eagle's feather stood up from it. His eyes were bright and sharp. Behind him the sun was shining on the dustry street and an Indian pony stood their waiting. "Heap big snow come," this Indian said. The blanket slid on his shoulder and one naked brown arm came out. It moved in a wide sweep, to north, to west, to east, and gathered them all together and swirled. "Heap big snow, big wind," he said. "How long?" Pa asked him. "Many moons," the Indian said. He held up four fingers, then three fingers. Seven fingers, seven months, blizzards for seven months. They all looked at him and did not say anything. "You white men," he said. "I tell-um you."
Paul! I know, I know! You TRIED!!!!!! (I think a scalp-lock might suit Krugman, actually.) But that cements it. Pa, and most of the settlers, move into town, where their houses are already completed — a remarkable move, considering that none of them have ever lived in town before, and reject the idea that it offers any protection at all. But, you know, that's where the houses are. The claim houses, where they've moved for progress and stability, have proved absolutely unable to handle trouble coming out of left field. 2. The Gummint Since most of the settlers think this is a temporary move—one based only on the fact that the houses in town are complete and the houses out on the claim are not—no one is particularly perturbed (though you'd do well to whose regulations made it necessary to build the town houses before the homesteads in the first place). 'Manzo Wilder, who has come out to farm land, and his brother, Royal, who has come to open a store in De Smet, perfectly symbolize the new split. Royal is excited to take advantage of bringing Main Street to prairie, while Almanzo, who has to go through the government now to have a farm, has gone so far as to lie in order to get his claim, saying he's 21 when he's really only 19:
Almanzo looked at this way: the Government wanted this land settled; Uncle Sam would give a farm to any man who had the nerve and muscle to come out here and break the sod and stick to the job till it was done. But the politicians far away in Washington could not know the settlers so they must make rules to regulate them and one rule was that a homesteader must be twenty-one years old. None of these rules worked as they were intended to.
Taking an even dimmer view of the taxman is our dear Mr. Edwards, who visits the family briefly in the midst of the worst part of the winter and refuses their offer to stay, saying he'll be following the railroad until it stops:
"I'm aiming to go far West this spring," he said. "This here country, it's too settled-up for me. The politicians are swarming in already, and ma'am if there's any worse pest than grasshoppers it surely is politicians. Why, they'll tax the lining out'n a man's pockets to keep up these here county-seat towns! I don't see nary use for a county, nohow. We all got along happy and content without 'em....I don't aim to pay taxes."
Mr. Edwards is the kind of small-government proponent you'd like to believe existed — since he depends not on the market but on his own grit to get him through, and thus has a point about the taxes. (If he dressed a moose, it wouldn't be for a photo op.) He is also an active participant in the trickle-down economics you could get behind, dropping a twenty dollar bill into the blind Mary's lap before departing, so the family can't refuse it. Still, trickle-down economics is no substitution for the real thing. Which brings us to... 3. The Railroads Of course, as the snows continue coming, the trains cease coming — the owners back East deciding that it's risky, expensive and well-nigh impossible to bring resources to the settlers — who, having swapped their own farms for rinky-dink claims, now actually depend on them. This creates an uneasy tension, as the Ingalls stolidly try to get along as they always have, not quite willing to admit that in their situation, they're not only dependent on the decisions of the railroad monopolies and the government regulators, but on their competence — and, finally, largesse: "'There's no more salt pork in town," Pa says, bemused. "Getting all our supplies from the East, this way, we run a little short when trains don't get through."' Ma complains of the same: "If only I had some grease I could fix some kind of light," Ma considered. "We didn't lack for light when I was a girl, before this newfangled kerosene was ever heard of." Totally jailed in the house, kept in by endless blizzards and high drifts, Laura raises a lone, plaintive call at the preposterousness of their situation:
"What good is it to be in town?" Laura said. "We're just as much by ourselves as if there wasn't any town." "I hope you don't expect to depend on anyone else, Laura." Ma was shocked. "A body can't do that."
The Long Winter: Cold Comfort; Or, In Which I Don't Even Try To Fight The MetaphorUnfortunately, that's exactly what they do have to do now. Running out of wheat, potatoes and grain entirely, Pa finally goes over to 'Manzo's place, where — no fool he — he has divined that the young farmer has hidden his seed crop behind a false wall. "Say, that's my seed wheat; and I'm not selling it!" Almanzo yells, and Pa, once a proud, independent farmer, grimly replies, "We're out of wheat at my house and I am buying some."
But Almanzo, who also understands the effect the railroad has on the town's economy, already took the precaution of building the wall because he knew exactly what it would mean if the railroads stopped running:The Long Winter: Cold Comfort; Or, In Which I Don't Even Try To Fight The Metaphor
...this storm'll hold up the train till after Christmas at best." "Maybe not, but I know you, Roy. You're not a farmer, you're a storekeeper. A fellow comes in here and says, "What's the price of your wheat?" You'll say, "I'm sold out of wheat." He says, "What's that in those sacks? You tell him, "That's not my wheat, it's 'Manzo's. So the fellow says, "What'll you boys sell it for?" And don't try to tell me you'll say, "We won't sell it. No, sirree, Roy, you're storekeeper. You'll say to him, "What'll you give?" "Well, maybe I would," Royal admitted. "What's the harm in that?" "The harm is that they'll bid up prices sky-high before a train gets through. I'll be out hauling hay or somewhere and you'll figure that I wouldn't refuse such a price, or you'll think you know better than I do what's for my best interests...I'm nailing up my seed wheat so noboddy'll see it...and it'll be right here when seedtime comes."
Royal's a market man — his view is that the seed is worth what it's worth now, and if he did sell off 'Manzo's seed crop to a demanding public, he would be making a good deal for his little brother. But 'Manzo has faith in the actual worth of its seed and its capacity, literally, for growth. It doesn't matter how much money he could get out of his seed as a commodity — what if he could never buy the seed back? Home isn't about the market's determination of worth — it's about the worth of what the home can actually produce, absent a boom or a bust: "His homestead would depend on his having that seed wheat to sow. He would not sell it for any money. It was seed that made crops. You could not sow silver dollars." 4. The Free Market I find it the book's greatest irony that 'Manzo, since he doesn't want to sell his own seed wheat, actually sets off, with Cap Garland (who always seemed TOTALLY hot to me with his glittering eyes and temper) on a wild-goose chase to find some settler who may or may not exist out on the prairie (Russia?) to sell him his seed wheat, since he's divined from Mr. Ingalls's act that many townspeople are either starving, or soon will. The lonely homesteader, who, like 'Manzo, also wants to keep the fruits of his labors ("I like to killed myself breaking 40 acres last summer") gets decimated by 'Manzo's devasting blast of fearmongering, self-righteous morality and good common sense:
"There's women and children that haven't had a square meal since before Christmas," Almanzo put it to him. "They got to get something to eat or they'll starve to death before spring." "That's not my lookout," said Mr. Anderson. "Nobody's responsible for folks that haven't got enough forethought to take care of themselves." "Nobody thinks you are," Almanzo retorted. "And nobody's asking you to give them anything. We'll pay you the full elevator price of eight-two cents a bushel, and save you hauling it to town in the bargain." "I've got no wheat to sell," Mr. Anderson answered, and Almanzo knew he meant what he said. Cap asked him reasonably, "Well, for that matter, how do you know you'll make a crop?" "The only thing you're sure of is cash in your pocket," said Almanzo.
And yet, this isn't true either, exactly — since when 'Manzo and Cap return home and hand the wheat over the the man who's paying, the storekeeper Mr. Loftus, he then raises the price to $3 a pound, until the townspeople remind him that if he holds them over a barrel when they have no other options, they'll be sure to remember when the railroad runs in the spring and they have more shopping options. The Long Winter: Cold Comfort; Or, In Which I Don't Even Try To Fight The MetaphorWhen I started this column, since this is a book about a long, cold season, I thought I'd be mostly interested in amassing a bunch of Ma and Pa's standard Pollyanna admonishments for use in the days to come, as I slowly put aside my beloved Bluefly buys. ("Salt brings out the flavor of the potato! Don't be ungrateful for what you have, for you'll soon wish you had it! Let's make some delicious preserves from these green tomatoes the frost killed!") While if another bank closes I plan to return to these chapters for these and other enlivening materials immediately, I find I am much more interested in everything that goes on outside that house. I'd never noticed how much this book marks exactly where farmers, government, empire and industry truly did enter their unholy alliance, and the dangers involved therein — especially when you can't depend on small-government agitators to always drop you a twenty when you need it, or for libertarians to go off on a life-threatening goose chase to find someone else willing to sell you wheat if they don't feel like selling their own wheat at any price, and you're starving to death. Also, I don't know how to make green tomato preserves, or to preserve anything. But I do know this: you can't sow complex derivatives. God, I hope that train gets here soon. • • • • • Bad news, my beauties — 'Fine' Lines too has been hit hard by the economic blizzard, and, like all non-essential items (I think of us as a tin of oysters, but butter works too), we are going to have a hard time getting through with all the train lines all snowed in this way. Which is to say, Anna and I are trying to clear the cuts but goddamn. Look out for us, just not necessarily on schedule. In the meantime, may I suggest you try our archives? I am pleased to remind you, however, that the book remains on, much like Ma's button lamp sucking up axel grease. If you'd like to be put on the mailing lists for announcements, denouncements and various and sundry informations, please click here or send an email to jezziefinelines@gmail.com with COLD STORAGE in the subject line. You can also use the jezziefinelines@gmail.com email for any communications in the meantime; I love to hear from you! The Long Winter Lizzie Skurnick [TheOldHag] Earlier: Remember Me: After Birth, After LifeBridge To Terabithia: Troubling The WatersFlowers In The Attic: He Ain't Sexy, He's My BrotherA Little Princess: A Reversal Of Four BunsTiger Eyes: Cuando Los Lagartijos CorrenHomecoming: A Dicey ProspectGo Ask Alice: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
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