One morning in March, with snow swirling and dropping like a thick veil onto ground that is already piled high with snow from last night, I remember a book I used to love when I was a little girl, living in South Africa: The Long Winter, part of the Little House series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It is set in southeastern Dakota Territory in America during the severe winter of 1880 to 1881. I read the books in the series with not much understanding of log cabins, huge woods, green, waving prairie grasslands, or snow. It all seemed quite exotic. The wagons, oxen and farming I could deal with, since my grandparents were from a long line of farming stock. But where we lived it was semi-arid and hot, and we didn’t have any woodlands, prairies…or snow. Snow was a thing found only in books.
The first time I saw actual snow, lying on the actual ground, and being actually touchable, was when I was an adult and went to Europe on holiday. I recall I was so anxious about spotting the first snow when we were on the Autobahn to Austria, that I mistook bales of hay covered in white plastic for heaps of snow.
The Long Winter in particular both frightened and intrigued me – How could it be that soft snow posed a danger? How could clothes freeze solid on the clothesline? Why was it painful to face a blizzard? How could you get lost and die in it – if it was so temporary that it all melted away? My little head just about fell off from all the bothersome questions. But I do remember the wonder I felt both at the story of survival, and at Garth Williams’ illustrations. He just about got the white curves of snow heaps perfectly with his soft pencil sketches – though I only realized that much later in life.
I remember my happiness and amazement when I read that book – such a simple little book, that has been part of my memories for so many years. And I also remember that when I did eventually see real snow, it was just like seeing an old friend that I’d met before in a book. Just shows you the impact a good book can have.
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