I don’t recall how I acquired A Blizzard Year. It’s a very interesting little book that could have belonged to one of my children once upon a time, or I may have picked it up at the library book sale. No matter, I have had it a while, and picked it up on a whim the other day. Does this ever happen to you…you’re cleaning, straightening up, admiring your book collection, and BAM…here’s a neat little book that has been waiting its turn forever. It seemed like it would be a good fit for boys, though the main character and narrator of the story is a girl named Timmy. My kids are all grown up, but I have two grandsons who will probably like it, if I have anything to do with it, sometime down the road.
There is never any mention of a specific place name in the story, but the author, Gretel Ehrlich, lived on a ranch in Wyoming. Her first novel, published in 1985, was about the Heart Mountain internment camp just outside of Cody, so let’s just say that the ranch in this story is in northern Wyoming, probably part of the Big Horn mountain range. A VERY beautiful place.
Wyoming is a large, sparsely populated state, with ranches covering a good portion of it, so it could be just about anywhere. However, one of the chapters talks about the family going to the annual pow-wow at the Crow Indian Reservation Crow Fair, and I do know that is located just over the northern border in Montana.
The named characters are few, but the premise is quite gripping for such a short book. Timmy is 13 years old as she begins writing her journal about her family and their life and work on the ranch. Each chapter describes one month of the year, and is about 12-15 pages long. Being such a short book, you’d think she wouldn’t really have much to say, but her observations of life in the mountains, the hard ranch work, and most of all, the effects of a blizzard on the family give you many opportunities to learn about ranch life.
Beginning with February, which is the typical time for calving and lambing to commence, she mentions temperatures of twenty, thirty, and forty degrees below zero. Yep! Having lived in Wyoming myself, for 42 years, I am well acquainted with these temperatures. In spite of the cold, the ranchers and all the hands must be prepared to help with the birthing of calves and lambs. This happens to be a ranch that has both cattle and sheep. As if the cold doesn’t make it hard enough to help the cows keep their young calves safe, a late blizzard buries the area, putting their ranch in financial peril.
Each month’s journal entry has a simple pen and ink drawing, done by Kate Kiesler, depicting a life event.
Timmy talks about the different birds that nest and live in the area; the deer and elk, ermine, bugs, and all the flora of the area, and how it changes from season to season.
Each spring they must deal with branding all the livestock. Rodeos were begotten from this activity. It is not a very pleasant job, but working together with all their neighbors, it is made into a day to have fun along with lots of hard work.
Each day there are many chores to do, and no one gets to sit out. Timmy helps her mom around the house, but she is outdoors a lot to feed and water animals, check the pens of newborn animals, plant and weed a large garden, even play with a brand new batch of puppies. The whole family pitches in to herd cattle to their summer ranges in the mountains, and back again in the fall. Life is certainly not dull!
In the midst of all this work, Timmy also goes to school. She has some good friends who, when they learn of the trouble Timmy’s family is in because of the hard winter, come up with unique ideas to try to keep the family afloat. They are continually helping each other with ranching chores on their own and their neighbors’ places. That’s just how it’s done. “Many hands make light work.” Each month has its own list of chores to be completed, and as the year draws down to the fall, extra work is required to get the ranch ready for winter. Every season is full of work and play. It might exhaust you just reading it.
I really like her lists of all the wild flowers, bugs, and animals. If you were homeschooling, or would just like to have your reader dig a little deeper, the lists that Timmy makes throughout her narrative would make it interesting to compare and contrast the types of flora and fauna found in your own area. It is a straightforward story without teenage angst or tantrums. Just a good description of real life, real work, and real friendship. This would be an easy book to use for a family read-along; one chapter a night, with some fun discussion on the events of that month’s activities. It made me wish I had school children again so we could do the same.