There’s only one book to get me through the present icy weather, and that’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter.
There something to be said for escapist books full of sunshine and palm trees and cocktails for cold times. But I find burying myself in the blizzards and hardship endured by the indomitable Ingalls family in their 1880s Dakota frontier town both puts our present disastrous weather into perspective and does that most comforting thing – makes it into a childhood story.
I’ve been a huge fan of the Little House on the Prairie books since I was about seven and my aunt gave me the first one – I promptly wrote her a letter asking if she could give me the next six forthwith. I loved rebellious Laura, the sense of independence and adventure, and also all the practical and at the same time (to me) exotic details, about how to build a log house or collect maple syrup or trap gophers (I still don’t really know what a gopher is; as a child I somehow got the idea that it was a sort of big furry spider). I loved the close-knit family, Pa’s fiddle music, their poor but deliriously happy Christmases.
So rereading The Long Winter is a nostalgic trip back into the comfort of childhood, when all I did was sit curled up with a book, living other people’s adventures in my head and dreaming up my own. I’m still struck by the adventurousness, and by the reassuringly calm heroics of Ma and Pa Ingalls keeping the family together. I’m more appalled by the hardship now; and suspect that in truth they survived seven months of awful claustrophobia and boredom on top of hunger and weakness and cold with a lot more than just one temper tantrum from Laura... And I find the story of Almanzo’s brave trip into a blizzard to find corn to feed the starving townspeople (when in fact he has a load of his own corn squirreled away in town that he’s saving to plant in spring) a lot more morally interesting as an adult.
In the years since, I’ve read many more winter books, and lived through quite a few seven-month Ukrainian winters of my own. Now, even while I’m commiserating with my poor parents up in the north-west, I’m worrying about Ukrainian and Russian friends stuck with record snow-drifts this year. But The Long Winter is still my paradigm of wintry hardship endured and overcome.
(Although if we really have a whole month of this coming up, I may have to turn to The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of Scott’s last trip to the Antarctic. Several hours thawing out a sleeping bag just enough to actually be able to get inside it, every night, for weeks... Now that puts our weather into perspective.)
What books are getting you through the cold?