It’s hot. It’s probably August, though the book doesn’t explicitly say. It’s the summer after the first winter near De Smet—the winter of the Surveyors’ House and the oyster-soup New Year’s dinner—and the Ingalls family is out on the claim. Pa’s cutting prairie grass to make hay for the coming winter’s feed. (And fuel. Wait. Never mind.)
Laura’s on her way to bring Pa a jug of cool water, which he then sets down on the ground and covers with grass. (Wonder what the jug is made of?) We learn that the mowing machine has tapped Pa out financially, and he’s working in the horrific heat with no one to help him but … his daughter Laura? Once she finishes playing in the grass and freaking out a garter snake with her mountain of big skirts (one of my least favorite moments in the series, as I’m terrified of snakes), she asks Pa why she can’t help him make hay.
You know it’s 2010 when a reread of a Little House book calls to mind a line from the musical. Pa says: “You’re not very big nor strong, Half-Pint” – just as Steve Blanchard says as Pa to Kara Lindsay’s Laura. Pa gives in, as does Ma, though with some doubt. Carrie, the small-for-her-age ten-year-old, and Mary, blind but capable, offer to pick up Laura’s slack in the shanty.
Next day, Laura tramples down the hay over and over again after Pa pitches it into the wagon from his haycocks. Haycock by haycock (I love that word so much I had to look it up), Pa pitches the hay into the wagon for Laura to trample. It’s a difficult job, so painful to Laura’s muscles that she cries silently in bed that night.
When Carrie brings Pa and Laura the water jug, she’s excited with her surprise: Ma has sent ginger water! Having been through two pregnancies and, ahem, more than two hangovers, I know the power of ginger on a queasy stomach. And as Laura tells us, drinking lots of water in the heat, on an empty stomach, is a recipe for queasy. I’ve never made ginger water. Apparently, lots of others have . Barbara Walker also includes the recipe in The Little House Cookbook.
Have any of you made it? I love ginger ale—it’s my favorite carbonated beverage by far—so I’ve toyed with the idea of giving this a try, but I can’t quite get my head around the vinegar in the recipe.
Where do you think Ma got the ginger? Would she have used fresh or dried?
I love this line: “Such a treat made that ordinary day into a special day, the first day that Laura helped in the haying.”
The Long Winter is one of the only books in the Little House series with a definitive dramatic plot. Laura—or Rose—begins the book in the summer by foreshadowing for the winter to come, a literary device I’m not sure she’s used yet in the series. After the “upland” (upland?) hay is cut, Pa “puts up” slough hay—much heavier than the bluestem grass they’ve been working with. When Laura points out (she does this “one day,” the book says, implying that she helps with the haying for quite some time) that Pa has forgotten about a haycock out in the field, Pa brings Laura over to the “haycock,” which is actually a muskrat house. The walls (it feels like “coarse plaster” to Laura’s hand) are thicker than he’s ever seen them, indicating, he says, a long, hard winter to come. The muskrat house sits in a pool of slough water. The rats’ entry is through the water, where “they dived and came up through their water-door.” (Years ago this description called to mind the rats’ rosebush in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH; it still does today.)
Here we get a taste of the “free and independent” theme, which will surface again and again the next few books. Muskrats can only make one kind of house, Pa says; men can make whatever kind they choose. It’s each man’s own “look-out” to make sure he builds a house that can withstand the wind and weather.
Laura is sober considering the implications of the muskrat house but cannot bring herself to think of cold, winter days and blowing snow. Neither can I. All I feel is heat.
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