At the end of World War II, the first book General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, approved for translation into Japanese was The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. General MacArthur’s hope was that the book would “buoy the morale of a defeated and starving people.” The translation included a personal message from Mrs. Wilder: “It is always best to be honest and truthful, to make the most of what we have, to be happy with simple pleasures, to be cheerful in adversity and have courage in danger.”
A German translation was also published. In total, sixty million Little House books have been sold (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_House_on_the_Prairie).
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote autobiographically about her life. The Long Winter, the sixth in the series,takes place in De Smet, Dakota Territory, population about eighty. In thinking about our COVID winter ahead, I reread The Long Winter, looking for ways the Ingalls family survived seven months of brutal blizzards, 40-degree below zero cold, isolation, ever-increasing levels of snow and ice, and ever-decreasing supplies of fuel and food.
The Mayo Clinic states: “Winter can be a difficult time for some people. Long, dark days coupled with cold weather and social isolation can lead to feelings of sadness, anxiety or depression. The coming winter could be especially difficult as infectious disease experts recommend that we ‘hunker down’ to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Proper preparation can help ease this transition and help you feel mentally ready for a pandemic winter.” You can read their eight suggestions at: mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/covid-19-during-winter-8-things-you-can-do-to-mentally-prepare.
The citizens of De Smet survived their seven months of blizzards. Unfortunately that is not the case with our COVID-19 blizzard. As of December 22, the coronavirus has claimed 322,000 victims in the United States since March 21, 2020. And before it’s over, many more will succumb. We mourn with those whose lives have been permanently altered by the loss of family and friends. We live with the daily concern that someone we love will be taken. Every headache, runny nose, fever, or cough comes with the reality that it may be COVID-19.
As The Long Winter begins, Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace are enjoying beautiful fall weather in their claim shanty where they live as homesteaders. One afternoon, Pa and Laura are working side-by-side when they notice a muskrat lodge.
Pa: “We’re going to have a hard winter.”
Laura: “Why, how do you know?”
Pa: “The colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses. I never saw a heavier-built muskrat house than that one.”
Not long after, Pa was in the general store when an elderly Native American man forecast seven months of blizzard. After these warnings, Pa and Ma moved to town to be closer to others and have more insulation to protect them from whatever was coming.
We, too, have harbingers of a hard winter unless and until a vaccine becomes widely available. At my six-month appointment this week, my doctor casually predicted, “Well, I’ll see you in six months still wearing a mask.”
Pa’s concerns continued and he felt the need to harvest even the pumpkins, which usually stayed on the vine until the first frost. When Ma asked Pa why, he said, “I feel in a hurry.”
I have hurry concerns. “In the Southern Hemisphere, the rate of transmission for COVID-19 accelerated during the fall and winter months despite lockdowns in many countries. These trends stand in stark contrast to the Northern Hemisphere, where the rate of transmission fell during the spring and summer months…. In addition, scientific studies have documented seasonal patterns for other coronaviruses. Most infectious respiratory diseases have a seasonal pattern” (www.healthdata.org/covid/faqs#seasonality).
My hurry concerns are additive because we are entering winter with a many-month deficit of constant COVID news—masks, lockdowns, restrictions, statistics, projections, and incessant accusations of how the government mishandled the pandemic, as if someone else could have done better. We are tired of everything COVID—the inconveniences of restricted social gatherings, one-way signs on the floors of supermarkets, not being able to see smiles, and the life-changing events of losing a business, medical bills eating up savings, being sicker than sick, or getting word that a loved one, who you could not visit, died on a ventilator. With an unnormal COVID Thanksgiving behind us, we wonder what Christmas will bring.
The Ingalls family faced similar anxieties in their approaching long winter.
A few days after Pa noticed the muskrat’s house and heard the Indian’s prophecy, he went hunting for a goose or a duck. He came back empty handed, explaining: “Every kind of bird is going south as fast and as high as it can fly. All of them, going south. And no other kind of game is out…. I never saw country so empty and still.”
The first blizzard hit October first, the second a couple of weeks later. Soon there was no butter and the cow was nearly dry. “Ma divided last night’s milk between Grace’s cup and Carrie’s.”
A few weeks later Ma apologized. “I’m sorry, Charles, I can’t seem to get the house warm.” “No wonder,” Pa answered. “It’s forty degrees below zero and this wind is driving the cold in. This is the worst storm yet, but luckily…. nobody’s lost from town.”
“Our coal is running low, and this storm will likely block the trains for some time…. There’s no coal at the lumberyard,” Pa said.
A few weeks later, Pa announced, “There is no more kerosene in town… and no meat.” “By the way,” he said, looking up, “School is closed until coal comes.”
They began to get up later in the mornings and go to bed earlier in the evenings to save on kerosene and coal. “You girls stay in bed and keep warm as long as you like,” Ma said.
Laura explained how Pa and Ma change the eating schedule from breakfast, lunch, and dinner to first meal and second meal, no third.
“I hate to tell you, said Pa… the train isn’t coming…. The railroad has stopped running trains, till spring…. “How can it, Charles?” Ma groaned. “It can’t. It can’t do that. Till spring? This is only the first of January.”
Pa constructed a tunnel through the snow from the house to the lean-to.
“Gosh dang this blizzard!” “Don’t swear, Charles!” Ma snapped at him. She clapped her hand to her mouth in horror. “Oh, Charles, I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. But this wind, blowing and blowing….”
There were still potatoes, but the wheat sack was almost empty. “I’ll buy some as soon as this storm lets up,” Pa said. “No matter what it costs.” “Use my college money, Pa,” Mary said. “Thirty-five dollars and twenty-five cents will buy all the flour we could want.” (Mary was sixteen and blind.)
“Will we starve?” asked Laura. “We won’t starve, no,” Ma replied. “If Pa must, he will kill the cow and heifer calf.” “Oh, no! No!” Laura cried. “Be quiet, Laura,” Ma instructed.
Pa came in with news: “There’s a rumor in town that some settler, eighteen or twenty miles south or southeast of here, raised some wheat last summer. They say he’s wintering in his claim shanty….” “Your hauling hay is bad enough,” Ma told him. “You don’t go hunting for that wheat.” “But why!” Pa said. “I won’t hear any buts,” Ma said. “This time I put my foot down.” “All right, that settles it,” Pa agreed.
“Are we out of wheat?” Pa asked. “Yes,” Ma said. “There’s bread for breakfast.”
“Running out of potatoes?” Pa asked. “Yes,” answered Ma. “It seems as though everything is giving out at once,” “But I have six potatoes for tomorrow.”
Two bachelors lived in town, Almanzo (Laura’s future husband) and Royal. Pa visited them and noticed a plug in the wall, thinking that something had been secreted inside. Pa suspected it was wheat. Knowing the dire condition he and his family were in, he took the milk pail and went again to visit Almanzo and Royal.
“Come in, Mr. Ingalls! Sit up and have some pancakes with us!” greeted Royal. “Thank you just the same. Could you be persuaded to sell me some wheat?” Pa asked.
The young men professed they didn’t have any. Finally Pa went to the plug in the wall. “Hey, what are you doing?” Almanzo exclaimed. The pail began filling with wheat. “That’s my seed wheat; and I’m not selling it!” Almanzo declared.
“We’re out of wheat at my house and I am buying some,” Pa repeated, as the wheat kept pouring into the pail. Almanzo stood watching him. When the pail was full, Pa put the plug into the hole. “You’ve got plenty of wheat there,” he said. “Now we’ll talk price. What do you figure this pailful’s worth?”
“What’s a little wheat between neighbors? You’re welcome to it, Mr. Ingalls,” Almanzo said. Pa insisted and paid a quarter for the wheat. The boys insisted Pa stay for a breakfast of ham, pancakes and syrup.
Laura wrote: “There were no more lessons. There was nothing in the world but cold and dark and work and coarse brown bread and winds blowing. The storm was always there, outside the walls, waiting sometimes, then pouncing, shaking the house, roaring, snarling, and screaming in rage.”
Almanzo said to Royal: “I think there’s folks in this town that are starving. Take Ingalls, there’s six in his family. You notice his eyes and how thin he was? He said he was out of wheat. Well, take a peck, say a peck and a quarter, of wheat, how long will it last a family of six? Figure it out for yourself…. Somebody’s got to go get that wheat that was raised south of town.”
“Royal… shook his head. Forty miles? Looking for a needle in a haystack? Man alive, you know yourself nobody can tell when a blizzard will hit. We haven’t had more than one clear day at a time since this thing started. It can’t be done…. A fellow wouldn’t have the chance of a snowball in hades.” “Somebody’s got to do it,” Almanzo said.
Royal wouldn’t go, but a friend, Cap Garland, volunteered and miraculously found the man with the wheat. At first he refused to sell, but finally, when the price was right, he was convinced to sell enough to save the town. Almanzo and Cap’s courage and compassion saved eighty people.
In our long winter, courageous and compassionate saviors will respond to our needs. We can also be the Almanzo and Cap to save others during hard times. This will happen as we follow the example and teachings of the Savior.
But “still the train did not come. Day after day, Laura and Mary and Carrie took turns at the endless grind of the wheat in the coffee mill, and morning and evening they ate the coarse brown bread. The wheat from the man out south was getting low in the sack. And the train did not come.”
On April 30, the train came. Pa brought the news that there was no food on the train. “No groceries?” Ma almost wailed. “No. Nothing,” Pa said. “Then what is this?” Ma touched the large package he was carrying. “A man broke into the emigrant car and shared out what eatables he could find,” said Pa.
Unlike the The Long Winter of 1880-81, our long winter hopefully won’t include blizzards and running out of food and fuel. But whatever the cause of a long winter, the same emotional needs need attending to. The Ingalls fought fear and depression by getting out of bed every morning and doing essentials. Giving up was not an option.
Spiritually: They believed in God. They spoke of God. They prayed to Him. One example is how the girls prayed when Almanzo and Cap were gone for wheat. Sweet Mary explained that she wasn’t praying for wheat for themselves because that would be selfish, but she asked God if it was His will, to please save Almanzo and Cap’s lives.
Intellectually: When school closed, the girls did their lessons at home. In the first few months Laura said she found time to study a little every day. As the months wore on she found that the sound of the blizzard muddled her brain, and her study time was usurped by the necessity of grinding wheat in the small coffee grinder and of twisting hay into sticks for fuel.
Musically: Pa played his fiddle many evenings as the storm pounded to be let in. Another day, when Pa was gone too long, Ma roused herself and said: “Come, come, girls…. Mary, you start a song. We’ll sing away the time until Pa comes.” As the days wore on, however, Pa’s hands became too rough and swollen from twisting hay to play, and then a violin string snapped.
They expressed gratitude: “Let’s be thankful for the little milk we have,” Ma said, “because there’ll be less before there’s more.” Ma commented on the tunnel Pa dug between their home and the lean-to. “I’m thankful he can do the chores in some comfort, out of the wind.”
They chose to be cheerful: “Now, girls!” Ma said. “A storm outdoors is no reason
for gloom in the house.”
They were courageous: “It can’t beat us!” Pa said. “Can’t it, Pa?” Laura asked….
“No,” said Pa. “It’s got to quit sometime and we don’t. It can’t lick us. We won’t give up.”
They chose to be patient with each other’s frustrations:
“Howl! Blast you! Howl!” Pa shouted. “You can’t get at us! You’ve tried all winter but we’ll beat you yet! We’ll be right here when spring comes!” “Charles, Charles,” Ma said soothingly. “It is only a blizzard. We’re used to them.”
“I want to go somewhere!” Carrie said fretfully. “I’m tired of staying in this old
kitchen!” Ma kindly suggested: “Put on your wraps… and all go out in the yard for a breath of fresh air.”
“I am so tired of brown bread with nothing on it. I can’t think anymore,” said
Laura. “It’s this storm, Ma comforted. “I believe we are all half-asleep.” After a minute she added, “We must stop listening to it.”
They were creative: Ma found ways to add variety to their days. One day she
suggested: “After breakfast we’ll read for a while about Livingston’s Africa.” Another day they read out of “Pa’s big green book, The Wonders of the Animal World.” When the grinding and twisting were done, they recited poetry and scripture to each other. Ma acknowledged food-fatigue and tried to vary the coarse brown bread by serving it cold, warm, or toasted until crisp. One day she announced: “I have a surprise for supper!” She brought it from the front room. It was a part of a salt codfish, frozen solidly, that she had been keeping there. “We’ll have codfish gravy on our bread, for dinner!”
They chose to address their situation with openness: Pa and Ma communicated.
They shared and fulfilled their duties. Pa attended to the animals, dug a tunnel, hauled hay, twisted it for fuel, and kept in touch with the outside world. Ma oversaw the grinding of the wheat, the usual chores of washing dishes, sweeping the floor, feeding the stove, preparing meals, helping the girls with school lessons, and maintaining a pleasant spirit in the home. They didn’t hide the truth but neither did they dwell on it. They involved the girls and helped them contribute.
We would know nothing of The Long Winter if Laura had not recorded her experiences and reflections. Although actual evidence of when and how Laura wrote the Little House books is sparse, somehow she kept names of people, places, dates, and events either in her head or on paper. Her influence is remarkable. If you record your experiences and reflections as the days and months of your long winter unfold, your posterity will find strength and courage through your words. It looks like the COVID-19 blizzard and the political storms will continue. The normal seasonal depression of colder, darker days will come. But like the Ingallses, you and I can survive. You might say they survived because they were alive when spring came, but survival is not something measured at the end of a trial. Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace outlasted the long winter with choices made minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour. Survival is a choice, a process, and the grace of God.