A misleadingly cheerful cover for a very grim book
  • HarperCollins
  • A misleadingly cheerful cover for a very grim book

The one great thing about the sort of bone-crushing cold we had earlier this week is that it gives you serious bragging rights. People in New York are complaining that it’s a piddling three degrees? Pffffft. We had 15 below! Now that it’s gotten up to freezing, doesn’t it make you feel like a better, stronger person to be able to say that you lived in a city where it got to be 15 below and you went outside (even if it was only for a minute to toss boiling water or learn how it feels when your nose hairs freeze, it still counts) and lived to tell about it?

I think I first absorbed this philosophy around third grade or so when I first read the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Even now, I don’t think there’s ever been any other writer who has written so viscerally about the cold. Sure there’s “To Build a Fire” and the journals of the polar explorers (particularly Robert Falcon Scott, who wrote his final entry—”These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale”—in a tent on the Ross Ice Shelf sandwiched between two companions who had already starved and frozen to death), but Wilder’s writing has extra power because it’s so much easier to identify with. The Ingalls family isn’t trying to cross the Yukon or reach the South Pole. They’re not attempting anything more heroic than trying to finish the chores and go to school and take care of their animals.

The first time I read the Little House books, I took the longer walk to school, climbed over the highest snow piles, and walked over ice when there was perfectly clear sidewalk a foot away just to prove my worthiness—that I was as strong and noble as Laura Ingalls. Alas, I did not live in an unheated house, or wake up in the morning covered in snow, or face imminent starvation because the train carrying the town’s food supply couldn’t get through. But I would have welcomed the challenge.

I reread the entire Little House series a few years ago, inspired by Wendy McClure‘s memoir and homage, The Wilder Life. (If you have ever read the Little House books, or even just watched the TV series, or if you maintain a strong attachment to your childhood reading, you should track down a copy immediately.) And then this fall I found an entire set in hardcover in the book-share box near my apartment, so I read them yet again. So the details were still fresh in my mind when the snow and cold finally came.

I thought about how, in The Long Winter, all the schoolchildren of the town try to walk home in a blizzard so awful they can barely see—only Laura’s fortunately timed crash into a building insures that everyone gets back to town instead of wandering off onto the prairie. Safely home, “Laura sat stiffly down. She felt numb and stupid. She rubbed her eyes and saw a pink smear on her hand. Her eyelids were bleeding where the snow had scratched them.”

Walking through the falling snow last Saturday, I thought about that, and kept rubbing my hand over my own eyelids, just to be sure.

But mostly I enjoyed the snow. It was lovely, soft, and quiet. It was tame snow, not a wild, terrifying Dakota blizzard that howls and screams for days on end.

  • Garth Williams
  • The Ingalls family, all together, all the time

I stayed home on Sunday and waited for the temperature to drop. It was cozy, but I started to feel sluggish and bored and quarrelsome, sort of the way the normally industrious and harmonious Ingallses felt two-thirds of the way through The Long Winter, even though they’d been housebound for months and I’d been stuck home less than a day. They had haysticks to feed the fire, and grain to grind so they could make bread. I had a radiator and had stocked up on ready-made food. (Probably just as well. McClure tried making Long Winter bread and reported that it wasn’t worth eating unless you absolutely had to.) I felt slightly guilty and marveled at their forbearance.

On Monday, walking to the train to go to work, I thought about the opening scene of Farmer Boy, the second book in the series, the one about Laura’s husband Almanzo’s childhood in upstate New York. Almanzo and his brother and sisters are walking to school, and Wilder spends a good couple of page describing all his layers of clothes (all wool, all woven by his mother from his father’s sheep) and how the girls wear scarves over their faces. I thought it was a remarkably good illustration of how to dress for the cold, particularly about how Almanzo tucks both his layers of pants into two pairs of socks.

  • Garth Williams
  • Cattle with their heads frozen to the ground

Later, when I took my dog out, I thought about the scene in These Happy Golden Years when the condensed breath of Almanzo’s horses forms icicles hanging off their noses, and the poor cattle in The Long Winter who end up with their entire heads frozen.

Later still, lying in bed, unable to sleep because of the cold, I thought of the Ingalls girls trying to sleep in an unheated upstairs room. “In the still cold under the frosty-nailed roof, Laura could feel the quivering of the bedsteads that Mary and Carrie were shaking in.” I wished for a flatiron to warm my feet. Instead, I got up and pulled the electric blanket out of the linen closet. I didn’t mind being soft if it meant not having to feel like this:

“The sides of the coal heater glowed red-hot and she could feel the heat on her skin, but she was cold inside. The heat from the fire couldn’t reach that cold.”