At first you might think that this is just another one of those mornings where Laura wakes up to Pa’s trouble song while her bed’s covered in snow. (Remember that time in By the Shores of Silver Lake?) All right, to be fair, it’s just some ice on the quilt, and at least the house has a roof this time. But something else is different this time around, something about Pa’s sunflower song:
“Oh I am happy as a big sunflower (Slap! Slap!) That nods and bends in the breezes, Oh! (Slap! Slap!) And my heart (Slap!) is as light (Slap!) as the wind that blows (Slap! Slap!)”
I don’t think it diminishes the terror and absurdity of the situation one bit to say that this is hilarious. Because how else can you possibly respond to an October blizzard? Besides getting dressed while your teeth are chattering and noticing that the snow has blown under the door, that is, which is what Laura does.
And then there’s this from Ma: “A b-b-b-b-blizzard!” Ma chattered. “In Oc-October I n-n-never heard of…”
For me this is one of the most indelible bits of Little House dialogue, one of the linchpins of my memory of this book. Without it maybe I could’ve vaguely recalled that the first big heap of the Heap Big Snow fell way too early, but thanks to Ma, I will forever remember that it happened in Oc-October.
The rest of the family gets up and gets dressed, and for a little bit things feel too hurried to dwell to much on grim details like the frost on the nails in the walls and the way Laura has to use the snow on the floor for the wash-basin. (Oh, but there will be plenty of time for that later!) Pa somehow manages to go out in the blur of snow and cold to do his chores and then bring in wood after breakfast.
Whatever they have for breakfast (bread?) isn’t as important as The Beans, which Ma had the foresight to soak the night before. And I ask you: has ever a single pot of beans done so much as this one? It’s dinner, supper, a steamy heat source, and an extremely comforting aromatherapy device. Pa says, “There’s nothing like good hot bean soup on a cold day.” Oh, Beans, you had me at “HOT.”
Never mind that in The Little House Cookbook, Barbara Walker quite sensibly points out that the bean soup that sounds so wonderful here is really just the simmered broth from the cooking process. “How good a soup it is depends on how cold you are, and how hungry,” she says. In other words, the wonder of The Beans is best left to the imagination.
I did, however, just try Walker’s instructions for the cambric tea Ma gives to Grace. Indeed it’s just “hot water and milk, with only a taste of tea in it,” as the book says. (Sadly, as I am an adult, it did not have enough tea in it for me, but never mind.) Walker mentions that “temperance crusaders deplored cambric tea as a way of introducing stimulants to the young,” but, as we’ll see, every now and then a kid can be overstimulated for her own good.
Anyway, it’s just like the Ingalls to make a cold day spent in a drafty shanty sipping tea and bean-water seem perfectly cozy. Pa tells Carrie and Grace the same stories that he used to tell Laura and Mary in the Big Woods (one bit I love: that he calls Grace “Blue-Eyes” the same way he called Laura “Half-Pint”), and later gets out his fiddle. But just the same way as the cold creeps in at the corners of the shanty, we’re always aware that things are dire—that it’s so cold that the snow that blows in from outside doesn’t melt, and that Ma is perhaps one mournful fiddle song from losing it.
But as it happens, Grace gets antsy and impatient in Ma’s lap (ha, guess why?!), and when she insists on running around she inspires Pa to get Laura and Carrie out of their seats and stomping around the shanty to Scottish marching songs. “They felt that banners were blowing above them,” the book says, “and that they were marching to victory.” With this kind of energy and inspiration on their side, for a moment we’re sure it’s going to be another All’s Well that Ends Well situation.
Except, well, it doesn’t end: in the morning Pa is singing his sunflower song again, and the blizzard continues—two more long days and two more nights. And though the book never gives the details of those two days, we can only guess that it must have consisted of more beans, more tea, more marching. Whatever it takes.
Previous chapters: 1: Make Hay While the Sun Shines, 2: An Errand to Town. 3: The Fall of the Year. To cover a chapter in this read-along, find out more here!