Dear Aunt Debbie,
The temperatures are climbing in Brooklyn, and this afternoon we set out for our first day of water play in the parks. At home, however, Eleanor and I find ourselves shivering and worrying about how long food
supplies can hold out now that the trains have stopped running.
As you might have guessed, this means that we're deep
into book six of the Little House series: The Long Winter. This makes
Little House the first chapter book series that Eleanor has wanted to read
straight through, one after the other. Yes, she's also loved the Betsy-Tacy books and The Borrowers, but she's been willing to take breaks between books.
Not so with Little House.
Winter may be the most dramatic book of the series. In it, Ma, Pa, Mary,
Laura, Carrie, and Grace (the youngest Ingalls, born between Plum Creek and
Silver Lake) are living out in the little town of De Smet, in the Dakota
territories. Pa has a claim a mile or so from town, and the family has been living in a tiny shanty to stave off claim jumpers. But winter begins early that year,
and promises to last for months. The first severe blizzard, in October,
convinces the family they need to move to town. Even in Pa's
well-built storefront on Main Street, they are cold and isolated as the
blizzards keep coming, sealing them in the house for days at a time. Then snow stops the trains from running, and soon the Ingalls family is pretty much
out of supplies and facing starvation.
The natural drama of the situation
is coupled with foreshadowed romantic drama: this is the book where Almanzo
Wilder reappears. (Technically, we get a brief glimpse of him at the end
of By the Shores of Silver Lake). Almanzo and his older brother Royal have
come out west to stake claims of their own: Almanzo plans to farm, and Royal to
be a storekeeper. While much of the narrative is in close third-person
perspective focused on Laura, as are all the other books except Farmer Boy,
there are chapters here in close third-person focused on Almanzo as well. We
get a glimpse into his head, his experiences, all with the delicious knowledge
that he and Laura will some day be married.
Eleanor picked up on the narrative
change, and we got to talk about how Wilder, as an author, is making us feel
close to both characters by showing us more of what both think. She loves
having knowledge of the characters' future, glimpsing the romance to come. It's
also helpful when we get to a suspenseful part: "She can't die of
starvation, because she has to grow up and write these books!" Eleanor
looks ahead at the Garth Williams pictures and reads the chapter titles of this
book and the next one, looking for hints of the future ("Mary is going to
get to go to the college for the blind!"). Last night, when we had
to stop just before reading a chapter whose title and illustration indicated
that Pa was going to find Almanzo's hidden seed wheat, Eleanor jumped with
excitement. She is utterly engaged. As am I.