I’ve got a stockpile of good books to read, award winners of literary merit, serious novels about serious things,* but since this strange dream-time started what I’m picking up most often are the books of childhood. So far, I’ve reread A Wrinkle in Time and its sequel, and a young-adult book by Naomi Shihab Nye called Habibi. This weekend I started rereading The Long Winter, which was always my favorite of the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
In some ways, it’s an odd favorite, but in other ways, it’s not odd at all. Although it’s set during the “Big Snow” of 1880-81, when the South Dakota Territory was beset by 7 months of practically back-to-back blizzards, it opens — and closes — with sunshine.
Although The Long Winter mostly takes place inside a two-room house, the Ingalls are always plucky and resourceful. Ma makes a delicious pie from green frost-bitten pumpkins. It’s Laura — of course it is! — who realizes the teacher and group of schoolchildren trying to make their way from the schoolhouse to town through a worsening blizzard are headed, not toward safety, but for the open prairie. We get our first glimpse of Almanzo, Laura’s future husband, and his team of beautifully-matched Morgan horses. (Spoiler alert: he saves the town from starvation).
Just a few years after I was the right age for The Little House books, I had the good fortune to take a high school English class with a teacher prescient enough to know a reading list of fiction about a world turned on its head would capture teenage attention. It was 1979; we read On the Beach and Alas, Babylon and A Canticle for Leibowitz, all classics of a post-apocalyptic genre that didn’t even have a name yet.
We were Generation X Latchkey Kids who’d had our cartoons interrupted by Watergate, who’d walked to school past lines of cars at the gas stations during the Oil Embargo of 1973, who understood that the duckncover drills we practiced occasionally had nothing to do with tornados. The reading list spoke to us, or at least it did to me: ever since then, I’ve dreamed about being alone after some great cataclysm, usually on my way to hunt-and-gather food from an abandoned supermarket.
Today. as I get ready to head out to buy groceries, armed with hand sanitizer and about to pull on plastic gloves, I can definitely draw a through-line — from plucky pioneers to canny survivors to us, sofa-sitters who have bought up all the yeast in the stores.
I know more about Laura Ingalls Wilder than I certainly did as a kid — that she was a dyed-in-the-wool Libertarian, that her co-writer daughter Rose, an even more dyed-in-the-wool Libertarian, funded a school that later educated, of all people, the Koch brothers. (Actually, I knew about the libertarian part, but not about the connection to the Koch brothers, which I just learned from Google.)
With that backstory in mind, how does The Long Winter sit with me now?
Is it too much information, or Coronavirus, that ruins a good yarn?
I picked up The Long Winter in part to avoid thinking about the divisiveness that still seems to coat so much of the news “back home.” And what do I find? Disquisitions into the Free Market, along with this passage, when Laura and Pa come across the especially thick muskrat lodge on the lake that foreshadows the long winter to come:
“Pa, how can the muskrats know?” she asked.
“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said, “But they do. God tells them, somehow, I suppose.”
“Then why doesn’t God 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, “so 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.”
“Can’t muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.
“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at this muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of. So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his lookout; he’s free and independent.”
So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his lookout; he’s free and independent.
This is what happens when you read Laura Ingalls Wilder during a Global Pandemic: you read that, and you think of the map of America spread out on the news, the states that have sheltered-in-place colored red, others, like Georgia, my home state, still white and … free.
The thing is, at the end of The Long Winter, Laura’s family feasts on the “Christmas barrel” that had been stuck in a train all winter, which is basically charity, including a turkey.
Could be that government is a pesky thing, until you personally need it.
*My bookshelf also contains a novel about the travails of the Donner Party, but that one will definitely stay put.