It's the end of summer in De Smet, South Dakota and the Ingalls family is pulling in the harvest that will take them through the winter. The harvest is not as much as Pa would like as the family have only been here a short time and the farm is not quite established. An early blizzard strikes in October and gives Ma and Pa a scare. Pa doesn't like it, a blizzard this early in the Fall feels all wrong and his fears are compounded when an old Indian turns up in the town store one day. 'Heap big snow come,' he tells them. 'Many moons.' It seems they are being told that 'Every seventh winter was a hard winter and at the end of three times seven years came the hardest of all. He had come to tell the white men that this coming winter was a twenty-first winter, that there would be seven months of blizzards.'
Heeding the warning, Ma and Pa decide to move the family from the shanty on their claim back into their more solid home in town. Laura and Carrie must now go to school, Mary of couse cannot as she is blind. The two girls are nervous about school but soon settle in. But it is while they are at school one day that another blizzard hits. The children and teacher have to find their way back to town... it's not far but in a white-out the trip is frightening and hazardous. But this is only the beginning of the long winter. Things will get much, much worse as the little town on the prairie is cut off from the outside world for seven long months.
What a brilliant little book this was. I don't think I've ever read better descriptions of how it feels to be stranded in snow and blizzards than this. Laura Ingalls Wilder must surely have lived through something like this to be able to write about it so convincingly. It's all there, from the terrifying and monotonous sound of constant wind, of trying to keep warm in a house that of course had no central heating... and what happens when the train can't get through and the town runs out of coal. Pa and Laura end up twisting stalks of hay to burn. This is hard, grinding work in freezing temperatures, but they must do it or the family will freeze. And then there's the problem of food. They don't have enough for seven months so what will they do?
There are scenes in this book that are so well written that I was as scared as the characters being written about. A small scene near the start when Laura and Carrie take a short-cut through the slough and get lost for instance. The one already mentioned when the children are being led home in the first blizzard. In another scene Alonzo Wilder and another lad go out onto the prairie between blizzards, trying to find a farmer who may have wheat they can buy for the town. It's terrifying quite frankly... they could easily get completely lost in a frozen wasteland or caught in the next blizzard and die of exposure.
Really this book is a tribute to the close unit that is family. Or what a family *can* be if all members pull together for the common good. The Ingalls are amazing people. Too good to be true? Well, possibly. But I don't mind that, there are others in the book who are not as good so there is contrast and friction to be found within the pages of the story. I was sorry when the book ended, I had loved it that much. Sadly this is the last of these books that I own. I'll have to buy the next one, The Little Town on the Prairie, which I will do as I want to know how Laura goes about teaching to earn money to send Mary to a college for the blind. The temptation is to buy myself a boxed set of all nine books as I know I'll want to read them again soon.