For many of us in the North, the snow is swirling, the temperatures have dipped below freezing, and the nights have become long. In the depth of winter it’s easy to grow tired of bundling up to go outdoors, scraping ice off the windshield and walkways, and feeding logs into the fire; and there is no escape from the fact that we are facing three more months of the big chill. Oddly enough, I have found that reading about authentic struggles with winter weather can bring about an instant attitude adjustment. Just delve into books such as The Long Winter, The Silence of the North, or Mrs. Mike, and the challenges we face become laughable.
One of the classic books about life in a cold climate that can positively melt anyone’s heart is Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman. Based on Katherine Flannigan’s real life, the authors listened to her story in the early 1930’s and set it down on paper in the form of a novel.
An engrossing account of a young woman’s life in the frozen tundra of Northeastern Canada, it crackles with realistic descriptions of winter’s hazards and warms your soul with memorable characters. Romance, laughter, drama, good vs. evil, nature vs. man…it’s all in there.
The story begins in 1905 when Katherine Mary Flanagan, age sixteen, is shipped off by train from Boston to a remote area of Alberta, Canada to live with her uncle in the hope she will find relief from her health problems in the cold clean air. Soon she becomes attracted to Sergeant Mike of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (There is a great scene where she makes a bid for his affection by attempting to bake a currant pie for him, which turns into a hilarious disaster). Eventually they fall in love and marry. Moving deeper into the wilderness, they experience together every imaginable adversity nature can throw at them as they serve the needs of the people in every corner of the territory, most often with hardy good humor and optimistic resolve. Told in the first person, the story walks us through the ever-present danger they face from life-threatening cold, illness, forest fires, and predators as they raise children and carve out a tough but rewarding life for themselves in the north.
Made into a movie (1949) starring Dick Powell and Evelyn Keyes, the film makes enjoyable viewing. But the book is far superior in creating a vivid account of a rich panorama of life set in a cold vast wilderness.
From the first page:
“The worst winter in fifty years, the old Scotsman had told me. I’d only been around for sixteen, but it was the worst I’d seen, and I was willing to take his word for the other thirty-four.
On the north side of the train the windows were plastered with snow, and on the south side great clouds of snow were whipped along by a sixty-mile gale. There was snow on top of the train and snow under the train, and all the snow there was left in the world in front of the train, which was why we were stopped.
“They’re sending us snowplows from Regina, no doubt,” the old Scotsman said.
I looked out the window, but it was no snowplow I could see, nor the road to Regina, nor even the coach in front of us, but only whirling, boiling, rushing gray-white snow.
“You’ll be telling your children you were in the blizzard of 1907,” the old man chuckled. “I was speaking to the conductor a while back. It’s forty below and dropping. No, we’ll not be in Regina this week.” He opened his book and began to read.
In winter, “The air was so cold they were afraid it would freeze the lungs of the horses. When it snows like that, you can stick your head out of the window and all you see is the nearest snowflake. You can walk two steps out your door and never find your way back to the house.”
Ever- popular, and easy to find at a reasonable price, Mrs. Mike is a treasure that bears re-reading again and again, and it is a book that has always flown off our shelves. We’ve sold over twenty copies in the past nine years; if we’d had a hundred more available, we’d have sold them too. I highly recommend it for chasing away the winter blues!
The Silence of the North is the true life story and adventures of Olive Fredrickson and her life in Canada’s north country. Married to a trapper at age nineteen, he later died and she was left to survive and care for her children on her own. Not as romantic as Mrs. Mike, it is riveting just the same, and an inspiring testimony to human determination and courage.
For children of any age, The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder is the epitome of a historical novel about surviving the wild vagaries of an upper Midwest winter as seen through a child’s eyes. Set in the Dakota Territory from the fall of 1880 to the spring of 1881, the Ingalls family has moved to town because all the signs of nature are pointing to a hard winter, and the settlers have been warned by a Native American that there will be seven months of winter. Heavy snows come early, and soon the town becomes stranded as the blizzards rage on and trains bearing supplies are unable to get through. Surviving on meager food like potatoes and dry bread, eventually even these food supplies run out; two courageous men set out onto the open prairie in search of a hidden cache of wheat to bring back to the townspeople.
I remember reading The Long Winter as a young girl in Minnesota while the winter winds blew outside my window and the snow piled up around the house. Even then I was impressed!