The Long Winter (novel)

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This article is about the Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. For the John Christopher novel, see The Long Winter (1962 novel).
The Long Winter
Front dustjacket with Sewell illustration
Author Laura Ingalls Wilder
Illustrator Helen Sewell and
Mildred Boyle[1]
Garth Williams (1953)[2]
Country United States
Series Little House
Genre Children's novel
Family saga
Publisher Harper & Brothers
Publication date
June 15, 1940[3]
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 325;[1] 334 pp.[2]
ISBN 0-06-026461-6 (lib. bdg.); 0060264608
OCLC 504334768
LC Class PZ7.W6461 Lo[1]
Preceded by By the Shores of Silver Lake
Followed by Little Town on the Prairie

The Long Winter is an autobiographical children's novel written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and published in 1940, the sixth of nine books in her Little House series. The story is set in southeastern Dakota Territory during the severe winter of 1880–1881, when Laura turned 14 years old.

The Long Winter was one runner-up for the Newbery Medal in 1941, as all the fourth to eighth Little House books were from 1938 to 1943. In retrospect the five novels are called Newbery Honor Books.[4]

Plot summary[edit]

On a hot August day in the 1880s, at the Ingalls homestead in Dakota Territory, Laura offers to help Pa stack hay to feed their stock in the winter. As they work, Laura notices a muskrat den in the nearby Big Slough. Upon inspecting the den, Pa notes that the walls are the thickest he has ever seen, and fears the upcoming winter will be a hard one.

In mid-October, the Ingallses wake to an unusually early blizzard howling around their poorly insulated claim shanty. Soon afterward, Pa receives another warning from an unexpected source: an old Native American man comes to the general store in town to warn the white settlers that there will be seven months of blizzards. Pa decides to move the family into his store building in town for the winter.

In town, Laura attends school with her younger sister, Carrie, until the weather becomes too unpredictable to permit them to walk to and from the school building, and coal too scarce to keep the school heated. Blizzard after blizzard sweeps through the town over the next few months. Food and fuel become scarce and expensive, as the town depends on trains to bring supplies but the frequent blizzards prevent the trains from getting through. Eventually, the railroad company suspends all efforts to dig out the trains that are snowed in at Tracy, stranding the town until spring.

With no more coal or wood, the family learns to use twisted hay for fuel. For weeks, the Ingallses subsist on potatoes and coarse brown bread made from wheat ground in their coffee mill. As even this meager food runs out, Laura's future husband Almanzo Wilder and his friend Cap Garland hear rumors that a settler raised wheat at a claim twenty miles from town. They risk their lives to bring sixty bushels of wheat to the starving townspeople – enough to last the rest of the winter.

As predicted, the blizzards continue for seven months. Finally, the spring thaw comes and trains begin running again, bringing the Ingallses their long-delayed Christmas barrel from Reverend Alden, containing clothes, presents, and a Christmas turkey. With the long winter finally over, the family enjoys their long-delayed Christmas celebration in May.

History, geography and current science[edit]

A train stuck in snow in southern Minnesota, March 29, 1881

Wilder was, by her own admission, a writer of historical fiction. Most of the people, places and events she describes are actually from her own life, but she sometimes juxtaposed events and compressed characters in the interest of good storytelling.[citation needed] The Long Winter, however, contains far less fiction than her other books; it is, for the most part, an accurate description of that winter in De Smet.[citation needed] The Long Winter runs from the fall of 1880 to the spring of 1881, a season of such frequent blizzards that it went down in history as "The Snow Winter".[5] Accurate details in Wilder's novel include the names of the townspeople (with only minor exceptions), the blizzards' frequency and the deep cold, the Chicago and North Western Railway stopping trains until the spring thaw when the snow made the tracks impassable, the near-starvation of the townspeople, and the courage of Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland, who ventured out on the open prairie in search of a cache of wheat that no one was even sure existed.

The fictionalized material includes the "Indian warning" in an early chapter and the duration and frequency of blizzards. While historical records indicate a larger than usual number of blizzards that winter, Laura's description of storms lasting on average three days each, with only two to two-and-a-half days separation, from late October until early April, would imply about 35 separate blizzards during that time frame, which may be dramatic license. Local oral history and research by Ingalls' biographers also indicate that Wilder and Garland traveled about 12 miles south of De Smet to find the wheat, not 20 as she states in the book. Almanzo Wilder is portrayed as being roughly six years older than Laura, when he was in fact ten years older. Aside from these minor variations, however, the book is an accurate portrayal of that legendary winter in Dakota Territory.

Editing the novel[edit]

Laura's editor for her Little House books was her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, well-known author and journalist and a prolific ghost writer. John E. Miller, in his biography Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, discusses extensive correspondence between Laura and Rose during the editing process, and includes facsimiles of that correspondence.


Virginia Kirkus had handled Ingalls Wilder's debut novel Little House in the Big Woods for Harper & Brothers as its children's book editor from 1926 to 1932. In Kirkus Reviews, her semimonthly bulletin from 1933, she awarded The Long Winter a starred review (as she did all of the 3rd to 6th Little House books). She advised, "Sell as true story material".[3]

The Long Winter was the third of five Newbery Medal runners-up for Ingalls Wilder, recognizing books 4 to 8 in the series.[4]

In 2012 it was ranked number 84 among all-time children's novels in a survey published by School Library Journal, one of three Little House books in the Top 100.[6]


  1. ^ a b c "The Long Winter" (first edition). Library of Congress Online Catalog ( Retrieved 2015-09-18.
  2. ^ a b "The Long Winter"; Newly illustrated, uniform ed. LC Online Catalog. Retrieved 2015-09-18.
  3. ^ a b "The Long Winter" (starred review). Kirkus Reviews. June 15, 1940. Retrieved 2015-10-02. Online the review header shows a recent front cover, gives "volume 5" and "illustrated by Garth Williams".
  4. ^ a b "Newbery Medal and Honor Books, 1922–Present". Association for Library Service to Children. American Library Association ( Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  5. ^ Laskin, David The Children's Blizzard. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. pp. 56-7; Potter, Constance 'Genealogy Notes: De Smet, Dakota Territory, Little Town in the National Archives, Part 2 Prologue Winter 2003, Vol. 35, No. 4; Robinson, Doane History of South Dakota (1904) Vol. I Chapter III pp.306-309
  6. ^ Bird, Elizabeth (July 7, 2012). "Top 100 Chapter Book Poll Results". A Fuse #8 Production. Blog. School Library Journal ( Retrieved 2015-10-26. 

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