Friday, September 2, 2016

Adventure classics – Pioneer omens of the long cold

The Long Winter

by Laura Ingalls Wilder

It was the book from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s  “Little House on the Prairie” series that didn’t get made into a heartwarming TV episode:  The Long Winter, based on the Ingalls and Wilder families’ experiences during the winter of 1880-1881, often considered the most severe winter ever known in the United States.

image: wikimedia commons
But the story starts in Wilder’s typically idyllic fashion with young Laura Ingalls and her beloved “Pa” (Charles Ingalls) are mowing and stacking hay one late summer day near the tiny Dakota Territory town of De Smet.

“The sky was high and quivering with heat over the shimmering prairie. Hal-way down to sunset, the sun blazed as hotly as at noon. The wind was scorching hot. . . A dragon-fly with gauzy wings swiftly chased a gnat. On the stubble of cut grass the striped gophers were scampering.”

As the haystacks rise, Laura notices what seems to be a dropped bundle of hay. No, not hay, Pa says, but a muskrat house. And as he and his daughter examine the muskrat mound, Pa shakes his head. "We’re going to have a hard winter,” he says. “The colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses. I never saw a heavier-built muskrats’ house than that one."

With the sun blazing down, “Laura could hardly think of ice and snow and cruel cold.” How, she asks, can the muskrats foretell the weather?

“I don’t know how they know,” Pa says. “God tells them, somehow, I suppose.”

But although Pa and Laura return to their haymaking, neither of them can help thinking about the snug muskrat house – and the flimsiness of their own hastily-built shanty on the prairie.

The first light frost comes in September – not alarming, but early for the year. In October, the first blizzard hit. “A b-b-b-blizzard! In Oc-October,” Ma (Caroline Ingalls) gasped. Whoever heard of such a thing?

And then, while men gather around the general store in the town, a prophet enters. “He was a very old Indian. His brown face was carved in deep wrinkles and shriveled on the bones, but he stood tall and straight. “Heap big snow come,” he says, seven months long, the worst snows in decades.

And without explaining to Caroline (who has a great fear of Indians), Pa makes hurried plans to move his family from their flimsy shanty to a house in town.

“What’s the need to hurry so?” his wife asks.

“I feel like hurrying,” he says. “I’m like the muskrat, something tells me to get you and the girls inside thick walls.” They would be only just in time.


Laura Ingalls Wilder c. 1885
Wait. Were there really a prophetic Indian whose warnings saved the lives of the Ingalls? Anecdotal evidence of similar warnings by Native Americans were mentioned in the news reports of the times. And about the equally prophetic muskrats: although Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, laid great emphasis on the historical accuracy of the Little House books, they admitted that certain facts and characters had been rearranged, enhanced, or even omitted to enhance the nature of the story.

In fact, Wilder had omitted some of the family’s most desperate circumstances from her books. 

Among these omissions was the death of the Ingalls’ baby son, Charles Frederick, known in the family as “Freddie,” prior to the family’s move to the Dakota Territory setting of The Long Winter.
The original title for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, published in 1940, had been The Hard Winter, but her editor considered it “too depressing” for young readers, writes Pamela Smith Hill in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. To the editor's complaint, Wilder’s daughter, Rose, had responded, “if The Hard Winter as a title is too depressing, what is the book?”

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

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