Surviving Winter

Josie Leavitt - January 25, 2010

As winter really sets in, I find myself seeking out old favorites to read. Perhaps I’m odd, but I just love reading about people surviving harsh winters during the winter. I cozy up in my house in Vermont, dogs at my side, fleece blanket at the ready, and reach not for books about warmth, but for icy struggles of survival.

Nothing is a better read than The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The family struggles after a freak October snowstorm. Food stores are running low, it’s cold and it’s fraught. When Almanzo goes off in search of wheat (wow, not the food choice I’d go in seek of) it’s tense and we wonder what’s going to happen. I just love this book. It’s a great book for kids to get hooked on the adventure of the everyday, and to learn that winter wasn’t just something we had to wait through to get to spring.

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is another classic. There is nothing like a person alone, struggling to survive in a situation where he is ill-equiped and the odds are against him, that makes me stay in one place and read. Brian, of course, survives a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness with only his windbreaker and a hatchet. when I first read this book and it sequel, Brian’s Winter, during the our first winter of having this store. It was a slow February day and I started reading and was hooked immediately. Somehow, I’ll never forget the scene when it was 50 below zero and Brian’s urine freezes solid, in an arc when it leaves his body. Truly a classic that makes you really appreciate hot toast, soup and a working heater.

Will Hobbs’ Far North provides a similar read. This time there are more people, but the conditions are just as brutal. Threats occur at every turn, be it from animals or weather. Gabe and his roommate, Raymond, have to work together to find a way to survive. The action never stops and, like Paulsen, Hobbs really makes the reader feel like she’s surviving along with the characters.

There is a more recent book that fits the bill for survival, though it’s not technically set in winter. Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It is just as thrilling for a stormy winter night. Can Miranda’s family survive after a meteor hits the moon, and causes what amounts to nuclear winter without the bomb? When it came out in 2006 it was one of my favorite books and I was recommending it hand over fist.  The third book in the series, The World We Live (due out in April) is just as good. I happily curled up on my couch last night wrapped in fleece and surrounded by warm dogs, and whipped through the galley. It is not technically a winter book, but it’s got all the element of survival books the I’ve come to need to read every winter.

The last book of survival is an adult book that is very well suited to teenagers is again from Gary Paulsen. Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, is the story of Paulsen’s obsessive attempt at running the hardest sled dog race in the world. Part travelogue, part survival story, and generally hilarious, this book is among my all-time favorites. Paulsen approaches the Iditarod in much the same way I would, basically thinking it’s easier than it looks. Oh, not so fast. Paulsen pulls no punches, from the first day of training with his dogs in the woods and a car body which had Paulsen horizontal in the air, hitting every tree in the forest, the book is full of detailed, often painful examples of his preparation.   This race is hard, very hard, and Paulsen pulls no punches about his lack of experience. There are scenes which can still make laugh until I have tears in my eyes. His moments observing nature are stunningly done and stay with you long after the book’s done.

So, stock up on some great reads and wait for a storm and read a book of other people surviving weather that have me weeping in a matter of moments. Grab a fleece blanket and read one of these books aloud. Nothing makes a survival story better than sharing it.

15 thoughts on “Surviving Winter

  1. Susan

    When We Took to the Woods by Maine author Louise Dickinson Rich has some amazing tales of wintering way “off the grid” in the Maine woods in the 1940s.

  2. ann

    I agree… THE LONG WINTER is a fave of mine! I think you may be mistaken re: HATCHET, though. I just read it recently, and it is set in the summer. Gary Paulsen wrote two sequels, though, and the second (BRIAN’S WINTER) is set in the winter. Perhaps that’s the book you meant to recommend? In any case, I will be sure to check out the others! Thanks.

  3. Cary

    There’s a blog called Beyond Little House ( that’s doing a read-along of the Long Winter right now. As of this week they’re only on chapter 3 (GREEN PUMPKIN PIE!), so they’ve just started. I hope they keep it up.

  4. Margaret

    I’m with Carin — The Long Winter is my go-to book for those summer days with a heat index of 95 degrees and up. Another classic “Cold” book on my personal list is The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. And Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness is a chiller in more ways than one….

  5. Wendy

    I love the old book SNOW TREASURE by Marie McSwigan (about kids transporting blocks of SOLID GOLD on their sleds past Nazis to get them out of Norway!!!1!) when I’m feeling cheerful about winter.

  6. Stacey

    How about Lost in the Barrens by Farley Mowat? I can still remember having the book read aloud to me in grade school. A great adventure/survival story.

  7. Margery Glickman

    For the dogs, the Iditarod is a bottomless pit of suffering. Six dogs died in the 2009 Iditarod, including two dogs on Dr. Lou Packer’s team who froze to death in the brutally cold winds. What happens to the dogs during the race includes death, paralysis, frostbite (where it  hurts the most!), bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons and sprains. At least 142 dogs have died in the race. During training runs, Iditarod dogs have been killed by moose, snowmachines, and various motor vehicles, including a semi tractor and an ATV. They have died from drowning, heart attacks and being strangled in harnesses. Dogs have also been injured while training. They have been gashed, quilled by porcupines, bitten in dog fights, and had broken bones, and torn muscles and tendons. Most dog deaths and injuries during training aren’t even reported. For more facts, visit the Sled Dog Action Coalition website:

  8. Mitali Perkins

    I had a Platonic cave-in-a-cave or story-in-a-story moment when I got to the part where Laura and her sisters escape their winter by reading stories aloud from the youth magazine that finally arrives. Meanwhile, there I was escaping *my* winter by reading about *their* winter. And so on?

  9. Thad

    (I’d like to see the off topic comments like those from Margery removed from your blog. This is a great place to comment about books and people with other agendas should be blocked and their comments removed.) A great read in my opinion is Paulsen’s A Christmas Sonata. It is a quick read, but it leaves me with reflections…

  10. rosie

    Have you heard of the book Danny the Dragon Meets Jimmy? It’s a nominee for Best Children’s Picture Book and soon to be released as a DVD including sign language interpretation for the deaf. The DVD is fantastic and truly a novel concept. You can contact me at to review this DVD if you have interest Thank you, Rosie


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