The Long Winter; Then and Now

“If only I had some grease I could fix some kind of light,” Ma considered. “We didn’t lack for light when I was a girl before this newfangled kerosene was ever heard of.” 

“That’s so,” said Pa. “These times are too progressive. Everything has changed too fast. Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves–they’re good things to have but the trouble is, folks get to depend on ‘em.”

I never tire of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books no matter how many times I’ve read them, which at this point in my life is many. It seemed like a good time to pull down The Long Winter, one of my favorites in the series, and I’ve been reading it all evening.
When I was little, in the 60′s, I would read these books and long to live “back then.” Always a sucker for the nostalgic, Laura’s days seemed more full of glory than grit. But, I would wonder, “If I were to write of my life, how could it ever seem old?”
Now I tell my children of my childhood, when the televisions were black and white with only four channels: NBC, ABC, CBS, WGN and if we were lucky, PBS. My mother woke us up in the middle of the night, after warming up the TV, so that we could watch Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon in 1969. 
The telephones had real operators at the other end, people who could connect you to the person with whom you wanted to speak so that you didn’t even need to dial the phone. It was a glorious day when wall phones with push buttons were installed, the cord so long that my mother could move about the kitchen while talking to my aunt never caring one bit when the rubber caught on fire from being suspended over the stove for too long.
There were no XBoxes, video games, iPhones or iPods. There were doll houses for which I sewed sheets and curtains. There were watercolours with which to paint like Beatrix Potter. There were books to bring home from the library every week. Books which filled my life then as powerfully as they do now.
But, I can relate to Pa’s lament up above. Folks get to depend on the conveniences they have, and with that ease comes less independence. Less ability to do without. I wonder how it would be now, to drive somewhere with a paper map, without a phone in case I broke down. I can hardly remember how I drove Germany’s autobahn in the early 80′s, not speaking a word of German, praying, “Lord! Direct me, because I have no idea at which sign I must exit.”
It’s all relative, I suppose, how much technology effects us. How much it may, in fact, keep us from relying on ourselves. 
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30 comments

  1. Oh, the letters…how I would wait for them from my husband, while he waited for me in Germany before we married, and the sight of a thick letter filled with his writing is one of the happiest memories I have.

  2. Yes, we wrote letters because long distance phone calls were too expensive. I've actually been re-reading my grandmother's letters to me from two decades ago. Nothing quite like seeing that familiar handwriting…

    My husband and I sat down many years ago and wrote a list of all the new gadgets that our daughter either had or wanted, but were missing from our own childhoods. That list would now be twice at long!

    I, too, read all of these books back in the late 60s and remember longing for a life like Laura's. I was going to read The Long Winter last year, but got distracted. Maybe I should try today. I'm sure it's a quick read.

    Thanks for the memories, Bellezza!

  3. Les, I began The Long Winter last night and just finished it now. I can't tell you the power these books have over me (but probably you already know). It wouldn't take you any time at all, as I'm sure you read more quickly than I.

    I've made such a list of “what we had then vs. what we have now” for teaching when I've been so lonely for my stick of chalk and chamois eraser. The technology which is supposed to be helpful only serves in requiring us to do everything twice.

    Glad you have your grandmother's letters to read and reread. Glad we have our paper maps, the only things which, in the end, really prove reliable to me.

  4. February does come with a bit of the feeling, “When will this ever end?” Laura's family waited until the end of April for the train to bring supplies. I can't imagine the determination and strength they had to survive, and yet I realize how much of the character and wisdom presented in these books reiterated the lessons my own parents were teaching me.

    As for postcards, they seem more manageable to write. Not as long, with the added benefit of a beautiful picture on the front.

  5. You know my prejudices, of course, but I recently found this NY Times article which only confirmed me in my prejudices.

    After three years without television, I have no regrets. I have yet to experience any inability to find a place I want to find, even without GPS, and I've found many places – and many people – technology would have zoomed me right by. There's nothing like stopping to ask directions or questions to make traveling fun.

    And yes, I still have a flip phone. If I have to evacuate for a hurricane or other unpleasantness, I can send a text if a call won't go through. Otherwise, I don't bother. I am a little out of touch with popular culture, I suppose, but every time I bump up against it (Miley Cyrus? Late night tv wars?) I remember why I've made certain choices.

    It was 1954 when I was introduced to the “Little House” books. My fourth grade teacher read a good number to us aloud. Maybe every one. They helped to flesh out the photos we had of certain family members, who lived in soddies on the Nebraska prairie. In many ways, I'm in the process of recreating that life – albeit with air conditioning and a nice car.

  6. I meant to ask you if you've read O.E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth? I read it years ago for a Great Plains Lit. course and it reminded me of a grown-ups version of the Ingalls' books.

  7. What a great post. Thanks for this. :) (I chiseled this comment in stone and then paid someone to transcribe it and enter it on some machine-like contrivance… Took forever, but it was totally worth it.)

  8. I have to read the article to which you linked, but I feel that you and I are on the ame side, Linda. If there is such a thing as sides. Well, we both like simple, and real, and what is essential. Which, of course,rarely includes anything on tv, and never includes Miley Cyrus.

    How lovely that your teacher read several of the series to you. It's so interesting to me that whenever I read these books to my class, which isn't every year, they love them, too. Who knew, this technology crowd of kids smarter than I will ever be with all their gadgets?

  9. I haven't read this book, nor have I taken a course on Great Plains literature, but how wonderful that would be. I remember our town when it was farmland, and I sorely miss the beauty of prairie, or at least open fields.

  10. What a lovely, thoughtful post. I tend to be very backward about technology – a mobile phone that's 12 years old now (my son just starts to laugh when I use it), no ipad, no kindle, not even a decent television box! But that's because all I really want to do is read. With every change we gain something and we lose something – it's always worthwhile keeping an eye on the losses. Sometimes it's nice to make sure that we get them back in other ways.

  11. I spend a good deal of time ruminating on this. How different Greyson's life will be from my years growing up. And I love Laura Ingalls Wilder. I find myself re-reading Little House in the Big Woods the most, but I remember loving this one, too.

  12. I think about how different my growing up years were from those of my granddaughters. They are sometimes quite baffled by my lack of attraction to some of the things they like and take for granted. Also, remember party lines? We didn't have one, but my grandparents did.

    I loved and continue to love the Little House books. The Long Winter is probably my favorite.

  13. Wonderful quote! Something that Violet Crawley of Downton Abbey would say. I was raised with b/w TV, and watched Lone Ranger, Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, The Waltons, and many other shows after school. Love this post!

  14. Backward…or, realistic. I think we're of the generation which has a foot in each side. We can see the advantages of having, and also not having, so many gadgets. You're so right, that each change offers a gain and a loss. I don't want to buy gadgets some times because they seem to become obsolete the minute they're in my possession. :)

  15. This is one series I did not read with my son. Somehow, we got 'stuck' on Narnia and Harry Potter which were more to his interest. But, I don't really mean stuck because there's nothing better than reading with one's child. Those are cherished days! I envy you discovering the series together. :)

  16. Isn't it hilarious how baffled the 'children' are at our childhoods? Talk about feeling like Laura Ingalls Wilder myself at times! I do remember party lines. I remember picking up the phone and listening to whole conversations others were having. Good thing there was nothing scandalous going on!

  17. Oh, Violet is my very favorite! Next to Bates of course, who is known for other things besides witty lines. Aren't you sad Season 4 is already over? Who gets by with about six episodes for a whole season?! :)

    I remember Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, The Waltons, and Flipper, Petticoat Junction, My Three Sons. So many great shows, usually with a lesson of some kind at the end.

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