Friday, September 9, 2016

Adventure classics -- The grim tale behind 'Little House'

The Long Winter

by Laura Ingalls Wilder

If there was anything Charles Ingalls disliked, it was feeling closed in. But after multiple warnings of an unusually hard winter approaching in late 1880, he moved his family, including young daughter Laura, from their hastily-built shanty on the plains of the Dakota Territory into a house in the nearby town of De Smet.

“It’s a satisfaction to me to be where we’re sure of getting coal and supplies,” says Ingalls (the “Pa” of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series) to his family. “We’ll keep enough coal in the lean-to to outlast any blizzard, and I can always get more from the lumberyard. Living in town, we’re in no danger of running short of any kind of supplies.”

Little does the family realize the winter of 1880-1881 will go down in history as the most severe winter in United States history. Laura Ingalls Wilder would record an account of it in 1940’s The Long Winter, the volume of the “Little House” series her editors feared would be too harsh for her young readers.

Following a three-day blizzard that closes the town’s school, the settlers wait expectantly for the arrival of the regular train. 

After days of raging wind, it’s good “to hear the stillness,” Laura’s older sister Mary says. “They could hear again the small sounds of the town. . . The only usual sound that they did not hear was the train’s whistle.”

At supper that night, Pa brings words that the train has been stopped by the heavy snow. “But they’ll shovel through it in a couple of days.” But hardly has the snow of one blizzard been shoveled away than another comes, and another, and more after that. Days pass, then weeks. Food and fuel become scarcer until at last – there are none.

In place of now non-existent coal, the Ingalls twist hay to burn for heat. In place of depleted flour, they grind the seed wheat settlers were saving for the next year’s sowing in a coffee grinder to bake into bread.

It’s possible to see in Wilder’s story the symptoms of protein and vitamin deprivation as the in the family’s diet dwindles to brown wheat bread and potatoes. There is rejoicing when in early January a farmer butchers his oxen and Pa returns triumphantly with four pounds of beef and bones.

“‘We can make this last a week, for flavoring at least,’” says Caroline Ingalls (the “Ma” of the story), “‘and by that time the train will surely come, won’t it?’

“She looked smiling at Pa. Then she stopped smiling and quietly asked, ‘What is it, Charles?’”

The trains, he tells her, won’t come. Unable to clear the tracks, the railroad will not run trains again until spring. And it’s has stopped running trains till spring. Till spring. And it’s only January.
They had four pounds of beef, a few potatoes, and partly-filled sack of wheat left for food.

“Is there any more wheat, Pa?” Laura asks.

His answer, with a strangeness in it she doesn’t understand: “I don’t know.”

He does, however, have a suspicion, and it isn’t a pleasant one. He has seen something out of place in the nearby store of two brothers, Royal and Almanzo Wilder. Is it a hiding place for a food supply? If so, can he coerce the Wilders to sell it? And does he dare even mention this hope to his family?

As Laura Ingalls Wilder (who eventually married one of the Wilder brothers – but that’s a story for another day) was working on the manuscripts of her “Little House” series in the 1930’s and 1940’s, her then more-famous daughter Rose Wilder Lane reminded her to identify a central theme for each volume.

Hard at work on a book tentatively titled The Hard Winter, Wilder pondered the advice, John E. Miller writes in Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend. The theme of this book, she decided, would be her family’s survival of that long, hard winter of 1880-1881. It was an ordeal the Ingalls family and the other settlers of De Smet would have to endure without help from the outside world.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a September of young adventurers with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter.)

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