#thebigblogmasproject2014: The Long Winter

There are certain books I think lend themselves brilliantly to being read in certain seasons, and The Long Winter is definitely one of them. The sixth of Laura Ingalls Wilder's semi-autobiographical novels about growing up as a pioneer in the American Midwest during the mid- to late 19th century, it recounts the story of the severe winter of 1880-81 in South Dakota. I'd read the first two books in the series when I was younger and loved them, but hadn't come back to it until last year when I picked this up.

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The book opens with the Ingallses - Ma, Pa, Laura and her three sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace - on their homestead, with many signs pointing to the prospect of a particularly harsh winter such as thick walls on animal dens and a prophetic visit from an elderly Native American. As the area becomes increasingly battered by harsh blizzards, the family hunkers down in Pa's store in town, but before long the food and fuel are running out with no knowing how long they'll last...

What actually surprised me about The Long Winter is how utterly chilling it is - both in the sense of the cold weather and the . Now I like a good ghost story at Christmas - I re-read A Christmas Carol every year and The Turn of the Screw is next on my reading list - but there's something about it that's far more effective when the threat of death is ever-present and never-ending, and it's real to boot. There's a scene early in the book where a snowstorm hits the local school and Laura and her sister Carrie have to walk home, almost missing the last house in town and ending up lost for ever on the prairie. Far from the romanticised version of the pioneer lifestyle we're used to seeing, it actually shows the brutal hardship of the situation and the need to swallow one's pride and get by however you can.

But the book never descends into the unrelenting grimness it could so easily have done; there is (nearly) always music from Pa's fiddle and a sense of making the best of what you have and sticking together as a family and a community. Consequently, the end of the book, when the train carrying the family's Christmas presents and turkey dinner finally reaches the town that spring, is utterly and wonderfully uplifting. (For the people on the number 43 bus the day I finished it, yes I did have something in my eye.)

As always, it's the wonderful characters who carry the book forward for me. I know they are based on real people, but you feel so strongly connected to them - particularly Laura, even though it's not a first-person novel - and are aware of their flaws as well as their virtues. I also really enjoyed being introduced to new characters such as Laura's future husband Almanzo Wilder. It's lovely seeing the seeds of their relationship being sown as he agrees to share his wheat stockpile with Pa, helping the family to survive, and his heroism in going to find wheat 20 miles away through the snow which in turn improves Laura's opinion of him.

Overall, whilst this is definitely not a book to read in the cold - I recommend sitting in front of a blazing fire, or at the very least having the heating on - it does brilliantly capture what (for me) is the true spirit of Christmas: that it's not about celebrating

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