What Laura Ingalls Wilder Can Tell Us About Lockdown Life

A book recalling the ferocious Dakotas winter of 1880-81 has lessons for today.

Posted Aug 02, 2020

CBS Sunday Morning dropped in on actress Melissa Gilbert recently to catch up on her life today and to talk about her halcyon days as a child, teen, and young adult actor on the 1970s family favorite Little House on the Prairie

As she and the interviewer Mo Rocca chatted, some obvious parallels between the 40-year-old show and present-day crises were drawn. Episodes with titles like “Plague” (about an outbreak of typhus Walnut Grove, MN) and “Quarantine” (a near outbreak of the less-specific “mountain fever”) were recalled. Still another episode sought to examine racial inequality, featuring a pre-Diff’rent Strokes Todd Bridges as the wise-beyond-his-years 11-year-old son of freed slaves who teaches Pa (Michael Landon) and the good people of a small Minnesota hamlet some important lessons before moving on. Certainly, the show, which churned out first-run episodes from 1974 to 1983 and has been on television ever since had a healthy share of very special episodes in a broadcasting decade where such things were ubiquitous.

Asked why the show mattered then and continues to matter today, Gilbert credited series lead and executive producer Landon’s work ethic for the program’s success. However, credit is due also to the rich source material on which the series was based, the nine autobiographical novels, most published between 1932 and 1943 (the final installment written earlier but not published until 1971) by the real-life girl/woman Gilbert played, Laura Ingalls Wilder. While the show on which they are based endures, so do the books themselves.

The late South Dakota State University historian, John E. Miller, noted (citing theories on memory first posited by social psychologist Frederic C. Bartlett in the same year as Wilder’s first book appeared) that Wilder’s writings as a woman in her mid to late '60s during the Great Depression about the toils and triumphs of westward expansion half a century prior in the 19th century were likely colored significantly by the times in which she recollected and wrote. Looking back to an earlier time from the midst of another difficult era, Wilder created sentimental but solid stories of endurance that resonated with readers living through the Great Depression and World War II.

Interestingly, the program in which Gilbert starred premiered and quickly became a hit in 1974, a pivotal year in another highly unsettled time marked by the Watergate scandal, the “energy crisis” and other turbulent happenings. In the present day, with its own special brand of uncertainty, interest in the Little House series and its author is again undergoing a resurgence. This is perhaps indicative of the persistent appeal of a romanticized past featuring brave exemplars of the explorer archetype stoically facing down the hardships that come their way—and living to tell the tale.

The books’ reputation has tarnished in recent years as the problematic manner in which characters addressed native peoples and minorities has become more cautiously regarded. No longer just simple literature for kids, reading the works aloud to one’s children, or teaching the material in a classroom invites sidebar discussions about the embarrassing prejudices of the past that crop up from time to time. As with reading many works from the past, historiographic interpretation becomes a necessity.

Free-Photos/Pixabay
Source: Free-Photos/Pixabay

A key book in which many see relevance for today’s trials is the sixth in the series, “The Long Winter,” first published in 1940 when Wilder was 73. The series had grown highly popular by this time; public demand clamored for ever more nostalgic tales of hardy frontier life. 

Wilder was at first rather stuck on this one. As recounted in author Cindy Wilson’s fine and comprehensive book The Beautiful Snow: The Ingalls Family, the Railroads, and the Hard Winter of 1880-81, as Wilder contemplated the empty page, she wrote daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who served as her editor and (opinions vary to what extent) collaborator:

“Here is what is bothering me and holding me up. I can’t seem to find a plot, or pattern as you call it. There seems to be nothing to it only the struggle to live, through the winter, until spring comes again.”

Perhaps, having come of age in and barely surviving the multiple previous deprivations common to pioneer living (e.g., crops ruined by droughts or hailstorms, disease, prairie fire, horrific onslaughts of ravenous grasshoppers devouring all the plant matter in their path) a long and extremely bitter winter seemed at first to be just another humdrum episode in hardscrabble living. Indeed, Laura and her little sister Carrie almost die twice before the winter even really gets going (on the flat prairie, with something in only a few directions and nothing in all the rest, getting lost in zero visibility can amount to a potential death sentence).

But this tale of man (and spunky girl) against nature is different from the rest in that the (many) other ill fortunes befalling them previously were largely transitory or mitigable by replanting, rebuilding, or simply moving on to greener pastures. In De Smet, Dakota Territory that winter though, there was nowhere to go and no way to get there if there had been.

The novel’s antagonist, the unrelenting winter storm, abruptly howls in catching Laura and little sister Carrie in school one drowsy afternoon. The light outside suddenly disappears and the winds and snow begin to furiously swirl. School is abruptly dismissed (and stays so for most of the duration) and the students, teacher, and man from town who came to fetch them nearly miss the mark altogether walking the short way back to town, the journey made almost unbearable and nearly impossible by the bitter cold and blinding snow. Had Laura not bumped into one of the structures at one edge of the town the whole lot might well have walked out into the waiting oblivion of the open prairie. 

Once ensconced in their little home in Pa’s store building (for most of the next seven months), the family of five sets about keeping busy and ignoring its feelings as best they’re able--or at least any showy expression of same—evoking Stoic philosopher Epictetus (50-135 AD), who famously said some variation of: “It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

The Ingalls may never have heard of Epictetus, or the Stoic school, but their approach does seem to synch with this notion. They don’t quite make it all the way, but they give it a Hell of a try. In fairness to them, the average temperature in the Greek city of Nicopolos, where Epictetus is said to have spent most of his life, is about 80 degrees warmer in winter than the -40 degrees of the 1880-81 winter in De Smet. (Granted, temps may have risen a bit in the intervening two millennia, but still it’s arguably easier to maintain a stoic approach in sweater weather.)

The original 1935 cover, rendered by Helen Sewell, shows the family happily gathered around a large stove being entertained by Pa and his trusty fiddle. The updated (circa 1953) cover drawn by Garth Williams shows a snowball fight in action. Neither image is overly representative of the events in the book. Certainly, there was much stoveside gathering and a snowball or two may have been thrown, and there was definitely much fiddling. But in a land without many trees and all the fuel-carrying boxcars snowbound at a great distance, keeping the stove lit soon becomes a major chore.

But not right away: The female Ingalls’ initially busy themselves with sewing (Laura’s not a fan) while Pa mainly tries to go about doing each day’s chores without becoming too frostbitten or losing his way between home and the stable out back in the driving snow. Singing (and dancing to keep warm), Bible trivia, and reading aloud to one another are among the varied activities with which the family tries to fill the endless cold and dim days.

We are fortunate to have many more things with which to keep ourselves occupied than did the Ingalls family. We’ve got the internet where one can read endlessly about Laura Ingalls Wilder or dial up Little House on the Prairie series veteran Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson) reading from the novels daily on Facebook Live as a virtual contribution to making small corners of present-day lockdown a little more pleasant.

But alas, not so for the Ingalls and the people of De Smet. They mainly had to make do with hay twisting. A lot of it occurs, at least for the Ingalls brood. It’s not, unfortunately, some sort of folk-art doll making they are on about, perhaps resulting in something better than the “corncob wrapped in a handkerchief” with which Laura must make do in the series’ first volume. Rather, there comes a point when just about everything combustible has been used up, and Pa saves the day with the creation of a contrived form of fuel fashioned from tightly twisted hay strands.

To make a long story short, suffice it to say that the town is ultimately saved when the well-off pancake-eating guys at the feed store decide they’ll likely make it through alright, but the town might not. So, an insanely dangerous quest for a (perhaps mythical) cache of wheat 20 miles away is in order.

One of those men was Royal Wilder and the other his farmer brother Almanzo. Almanzo (who, a few books later, marries Laura) and another fellow make the trip, improbably found the wheat and even more improbably, made it back to De Smet. (In the true/made-up blending of the stories, this part is mostly true.)

While Epictetus was probably unknown to the Ingalls’, 20th Century psychologist Albert Ellis came to know him quite well. Abandoning his training in traditional psychoanalysis (which he found moribund), Ellis turned to the Stoic philosophers to show him a different path. With 2,000-year-old ideas as a base, he created a mode of therapy eventually known as Rational Emotional Behavioral Therapy (REBT) which theorizes that problems occur when so-called Activating events (a crop failure, perhaps) may be met with the Belief (crop failures shouldn’t happen to me/I may encounter a crop failure or two here on the frontier) that result in a Consequence that may be either helpful (staying put and replanting) or not (returning back east, dejected). Ellis surmised that if one can develop more flexible Bs in regard to the As of life, one can have better Cs. (British psychotherapist Windy Dryden later tacked on an extra D and E, for Disputation of irrational or self-defeating beliefs and the Effect of having done so, respectively, much in the way Pa would occasionally see the need to add an extra room to one little house or another.)

It’s fortunate the Ingalls were able to intuit and instill this general viewpoint well before the long winter. As decreasing caloric intake and unrelenting cold began to dull the senses and stultify them (Laura’s concentration fades and Pa can’t even work his fingers on the fiddle), absent stoic reserve, despair might have overcome them.

 Richard Todd/Pixabay
Source: Richard Todd/Pixabay

In the course of that awful winter, the Ingalls’ sometimes went hungry, were often quite bored and often quite cold. Nevertheless, they managed to endure. Eventually, the weather warmed up and trains began again to arrive. Finally, a Christmas barrel from Rev. Alden they had long awaited arrives and they feast on its delicacies (turkey complete with cranberries) at a merry celebration In May.

That example perhaps provides an important lesson for us today: Our celebratory moments may be delayed in many cases, but the storm will pass sooner or later and afterward they can commence.

To quote Ma, “All’s well that ends well.”