Friday, September 16, 2016

Adventure classics – A hard winter, heroes and knaves

The Long Winter

by Laura Ingalls Wilder

In last Friday’s post, Charles Ingalls, the beloved “Pa” of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, hints to his near-starving family that there may be a hidden source of grain near the little Dakota Territory town of De Smet.

The Ingalls family, along with the rest of the town’s settlers, is enduring the long winter of 1880-1881, among the worst ever recorded in the United States. Following an early October blizzard, the Ingalls move from the flimsy shanty on their land claim into a house in town, certain that they will not lack for supplies because a railroad runs through De Smet.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, c. 1885
But as blizzard and blizzard strikes the region, trains are unable to run. Coal for heating and cooking – the only fuel on the near-treeless prairies – runs out, and the Ingalls twist their supply of hay into knots to burn for fuel. The stores run out of meat and flour, and the settlers, too new to the country to have harvested their own grain, grind wheat in coffee mills to make bread. Until the wheat runs out.

Still, there are rumors that a settler several miles south of town was able to raise a wheat crop and may be persuaded to sell – if the rumors are true, and if anyone from town can find him on the trackless, snow-swept prairie. With no more than a single clear day between each round of blizzards, there’s little time to search, and to be lost during a blizzard meant death.

And although the bachelor Wilder brothers still have food, they know only too well that others in the town, including the Ingalls family, are nearing starvation. At the risk of their lives, Almanzo and a young friend, Edmund “Cap” Garland, set out in search of the grain.

Almanzo Wilder, c. 1885
“I think no one really expected them to get back,” Laura wrote in her autobiography, Pioneer Girl , “for twelve miles, a good part of it through sloughs where the horses would break through and have to be dug out, looked almost hopeless of being done in one day and it must be done between storms.”

Wilder and Garland, however, make the trip, returning after dark with enough wheat to last the townspeople until spring. The next day, another blizzard hit.

In view of the insistence on integrity of Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s future husband, it is interesting that in The Long Winter she insists he was several years younger than indicated by his conventional biography, having lied about his age in order to file a homestead claim.

Still more interesting is her omission about another family who were actually living with the Ingalls through the desperate winter. Despite her claim to historic accuracy, Laura refused the urging of her writer-daughter Rose Wilder Lane to include the George Masters family in her account.

George, the son of an acquaintance, and his pregnant wife, Maggie, had moved in with the Ingalls at the start of the winter. Pamela Smith Hill, editor of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, quotes a letter between Laura and her daughter: “When Maggie came, Ma saw she would soon have a baby, much too soon after the time she was married. Maggie didn’t want the baby to be born at her folks’ and disgrace them. George’s folks . . . wouldn’t have her there. . . Then winter set in and caught them. There was no where else they could stay.”

In Pioneer Girl, Laura continues, “George was always first at the table at any meal. . . (and) he would gobble, not denying himself even for Maggie as we did because of her nursing the baby.” George would become a byword in the family for selfishness.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a September of young adventurers with Johanna Spyri’s Heidi.)

No comments:

Post a Comment