Guest post by Karen Witham
This remarkably short chapter (in my Harper Trophy 1971 paperback, it’s three pages) is all about food, or really, the lack thereof. It opens with the family eating the last of the potatoes. The cold, hunger, and lack of any normal routine is taking its toll on the family. Laura felt “numb and half-asleep;” even though she must be starving, she has no appetite for her potatoes and bread. But Pa wisely insists she eat. Ma announces cheerfully “I have a surprise for supper!” but Laura frankly writes “no one really cared.”
How I admire Ma’s strength and positive attitude now that I am a woman and a mother! As a girl reading these books I chafed sometimes at Ma’s bossiness and “uptight-ness,” but when I think of what I call “stressful” on any given day compared to what she faced I am truly humbled.
“Everything was very slow.” We get a sense of the normally bustling family stilled by fatigue and hunger and repetition.
Just out of curiosity, I Googled “signs of malnutrition” and got the following from livestrong.com:
“…The most common symptoms of malnutrition include significant weight loss, fatigue and dizziness…Swollen and/or bleeding gums are the first oral symptoms of malnutrition…Fragile bones, osteoporosis and muscle loss and/or weakness are symptoms of malnutrition…Malnutrition can cause a slowed reaction time…As malnutrition ravages the body, the organs may begin to function less efficiently. This can lead to heart problems, decreased liver function, kidney failure, decreased lung capacity, intestinal problems, stomach irregularities and abnormal menstrual cycles in females…”
I think someone else on the site has pointed out that this long winter may well have contributed to health problems later in life for Carrie, Grace, and Pa, and also Almanzo.
Trapped in a tiny room together, hungry, cold, and afraid, the world momentarily becomes a brighter place when Ma miraculously produces a frozen salted cod. “By George, Caroline, nothing can beat the Scotch!” exclaims Pa, in a rare allusion to Ma’s heritage.This brief ray of sunshine is soon ended, as the endlessly grinding mill goes on (what would they have done without the coffee mill?!) and Laura comments that Carrie is thin, white and exhausted and she is worried about her. The winds whirl and shriek at the lonely houses, whirling as the coffee mill goes ’round and ’round, “whirling forever over the endless prairie.”