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'It can't beat us' and other lessons from 'The Long Winter'

Many parts from Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Long Winter" ring very true today.

A child bundled up in snow clothes runs along a snowdrift while snow blows around her.
Jenny Schlecht's daughter, Reanna, 10, runs along the top of a snowbank while outside to care for her pets and calves during a lull in a blizzard on Dec. 16, 2022.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
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When I was a kid, it wasn't unusual to see me reading one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books. I found obvious connections with the small, tough farm girl, who was tomboyish and competitive. I credit my repeated reading of the books for my desire to be a writer.

Most of the books are worn now, but "The Long Winter" remains in pretty good shape

It's not that I don't like the book — it may be my favorite of the series. I find it to be the most well-written, the most descriptive and by far the most gripping. It's just far from a comforting read.

For those who haven't read it, "The Long Winter" is Wilder's first-person account of her family's experiences during the winter of 1880-81. The Ingalls family was homesteading in DeSmet in what is now South Dakota.

The winter started with an October blizzard, followed by a brief period of pleasant weather that was ended by a series of unending blizzards and dangerous cold. The book explains, in horrifying detail, the fear and confusion of walking home in a blinding sudden blizzard, the pains of hunger when the trains no longer could run, and the numbing boredom of spending each day locked in a routine of survival inside four walls. The hardest part is knowing that Wilder sanitized the story of that winter, and the reality was even worse for her family than what she wrote.

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We're going through what feels like our own long winter. Where I live in central North Dakota is more than 260 miles northwest of DeSmet, but the prairies there and here are very similar.

We had our first big blizzard in November, not October, and we had some days of manageable weather since then. But mid-December brought a blizzard the likes of which I'd never experienced, followed by bitter cold and winds that blew the previous fallen snow into yet another blizzard.

We are lucky today that we have modern equipment that allow us to get out after the storms and that keeps transportation open. We have well-sealed houses and efficient furnaces — and if those furnaces fail, as mine did recently, our open roads can get repair people to help. We have TVs and the internet to amuse ourselves. We have meteorologists who warn us of impending storms, and stores that allow us to stock up on food.

But that hopeless feeling when you must be out in the storm — the dread — that feeling that this will never end! Many parts from "The Long Winter" ring very true today, so many years later, like these quotes:

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  • "God will hear us if we say our prayers under the covers." Laura's sister Mary said this, urging her to get to the bed three sisters shared faster to help warm up. It's a good reminder that sometimes we can only do what we can do.
  • "A farmer takes chances. He has to." Almanzo Wilder — who later married Laura — said that to his brother Royal when deciding to risk facing a blizzard to find wheat for the starving town. And it's true today, too. There are chances that have to be taken on farms and ranches, even if they're not the safest.
  • "It can't beat us." Pa — Laura's father Charles Ingalls — said this as the blizzards continued to blow through and the hunger and monotony of living through the winter continued. It's the attitude I think we need to take. It can't beat us. Spring will come, just as it came after that long winter, long ago.

Now I leave you with this bit of verse that Wilder is said to have written during that long winter. It didn't make the book, but it certainly makes me smile to see how sentiments really have changed very little through the years:

We remember not the summer
For it was long ago
We remember not the summer
In this whirling blinding snow
I will leave this frozen region
I will travel further south
If you say one word against it
I will hit you in the mouth.

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.

Opinion by Jenny Schlecht
Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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