Book In Common, The Long Winter: The Ingalls must make due with a bucket of wheat

 

Winter is beautiful.

Winter is beautiful.

Christmas is over and life goes on. I feel good about the New Year, it’s going to start out cold and wet. 

I had a good Christmas – family, friends and food, in the right quantities. I gave and I got, and I’m happy about that too. 

But Winter is just settling herself in. Our last PG&E bill was a harbinger of doom – the next one will be worse, I’m guessing.  

We’re taking the usual precautions – we even brought out the Styrofoam boards we bought to cover the windows last Summer, now sealing out the cold. I’ve been leaving them in til almost noon lately. But the heater rumbles along, with little effect. The furniture is cold, I have to put a pillow on my computer chair. 

I feel like a woos complaining as I read from “The Long Winter,” the book I picked up before Christmas. The Ingalls had their nice Christmas too – small and intimate, like my  family, with small but meaningful gifts we all enjoyed gathering and giving. 

And then Christmas is suddenly over, leaving them to one of the harshest Winters still on record for South Dakota, the winter of 1880-81. The woman who would later become Ingalls’ sister-in-law wrote of that Winter, “Many families were reported frozen to death and others lived wholly on turnips, some on wheat ground in a coffee mill.”  While she did not yet know the Ingalls, Eliza Jane Wilder supported Laura’s descriptions of the bitter winter, adding that by October the trains were stopped regularly by snow, and there was little or nothing left in the stores.  At that point, Wilder reports she left her brothers Almanzo and Royal to go to their parents’ home back East for Winter rather than trying to make it in her claim shack on the prairie. The Ingalls moved to town thinking they would be safe.

They had no idea the snow would get deep and frozen enough to stop the trains they depended on for everything. Laura wrote, “the blizzard winds had blown earth from the fields where the sod was broken, and had mixed it with snow packed so tightly in the railroad cuts that snowplows could not move it. The icy snow could not melt because of the earth mixed with it, and men with picks were digging it out inch by inch. It was slow work because in many big cuts they must dig down twenty feet to the steel rails.”

Eventually the crews, including Laura’s father, gave up, knowing they were in a grim situation, they returned home to make the best of it. No coal for heat or cooking, no kerosene for light, no wheat or meat for food, it looked like the entire town would freeze and starve to death. 

But people have a curious willpower. Some people rise to an occasion. Mr. Ingalls is a proud man, and so is his wife. They are not about to let Nature get the better of them. They will their family to stay alive. 

Mr. Ingalls is well-respected man because he’s one of the only men who’s lived many years on the prairie, keeping his little family together and fed through all kinds of mis-haps.  You just have to read the books – the locusts, the hail storms, the prairie fires. At one point he mis-reads a map and settles on the wrong land, at the end of a bountiful Summer they are told they must get off. But somehow Ma and Pa stay together and keep their biddies safe, through triumph and tragedy.

De Smet is the town they eventually settled in for good. The Winter they suffered with their neighbors is the kind of make or break event that settles your destiny. Sometimes when things are bad, people turn on each other. In De Smet, they huddle together. Despite some screw-ups, they put up with each other’s weaknesses. 

When Mr. Ingalls realizes the last of the wheat is almost gone, he pays a visit to the Wilder brothers. The Wilders are bachelors who brought out a lot of supplies. As others are starving they sit in the back of their dry-goods store, frying ham and pancakes. When Ingalls shows up at their door in a blizzard, they welcome him warmly, noticing his cheeks are sunken, they insist he sit down to breakfast. Mr. Ingalls, usually a proud man, does not hesitate. The Wilders remind him – he has to stay alive, or his family will die too. “Fill your plate again,” they tell him, “and come back anytime.” 

But Mr. Ingalls has come for something else. While the Wilders say they sold the last of their wheat, he believes they have put some aside for Spring planting, he knows these are smart fellows. After he finishes the last bite on his plate, he stands up and walks around the little room, admiring the saddles hung on the far wall. He walks over and takes down one saddle – Almanzo immediately becomes nervous. Mr. Ingalls reaches for the saddle peg and pulls it out of the board – a tiny stream of wheat starts showering down. 

The Wilders know they are had. Mr. Ingalls is certainly nice about it, he promises not to tell. Almanzo has saved and saved that wheat, seed he grew back east to plant on his claim – and he is adamant about not selling it. If he is not able to get wheat from back East before planting time, he will lose his claim.

Then he takes a good look at Ingalls. Mr. Ingalls is the picture of starvation, sunken cheeks, hollow eyes, a funny gait replacing his usually sure step. Almanzo realizes – there are five other people at Ingall’s house, and he relents to give, not sell Ingall’s a bucket of grain. This is how people become lifelong friends. 

And the rest is legend among girls everywhere – Ma grinds the grain in her little coffee maker and makes sourdough bread. 

But how do they bake bread when the coal runs out? 

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