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Sheltering at Home: Hope from Laura Ingalls Wilder

Today’s circumstances of isolation, empty store shelves, and closed schools aren’t a result of the weather, but we can relate to The Long Winter because of COVID-19. Some of the frustrations the Ingalls family experienced in Laura Ingalls Wilder's book resonate with readers today.

Wilder wrote of her pioneer childhood in the popular nine-book Little House children’s series. Recently, families, adults, and children have been reading Wilder’s The Long Winter as a reminder of how the Ingalls family battled an unseen force beyond their control. The Ingalls family faced isolation due to seven months of blizzards. They knew the reality of near starvation after they ate their last potatoes and used the last of the flour. With the De Smet school closed, Laura and Carrie studied at home though they were hungry, cold, and tired.  
South Dakota State Historical Society, South Dakota Archives

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As we read the book, we understand it was a brutal winter. Many wonder if Wilder exaggerated the blizzards of the 1880-1881 winter. These books are historical fiction; they are based on real people, places, and events, but the Little House books are fiction

In my book, The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide, I explored some topics that might have been fictionalized. Below is an excerpt which explains a bit of what I learned from my research about that winter.
Laura Ingalls Wilder fictionalized or made up parts of the Little House series. You may wonder if she exaggerated the story of the hard winter of 1880-1881. Meteorologist Barbara Mayes Boustead examined The Long Winter. She compared the book to weather and history records. Wilder’s memory was surprisingly accurate, despite the many years that passed before she wrote the story. She remembered the length of blizzards as well as days of calm between storms. The last freight train really stopped in De Smet in late December.
            There were no official weather records for De Smet in Dakota Territory for 1880-1881. However, other cities in the region received between 121 and 154 inches (335 and 427 cm) of snow that winter. That’s more than ten feet (300 cm) of snow throughout the winter! The snow drifts would have been even deeper! Records for the coldest temperatures were also set that winter. Some of those records still stand today.
            Laura Ingalls Wilder shared her family and De Smet’s story in this tale of the long, hard winter. Though she fictionalized some parts of the book to improve the story, she did not exaggerate the brutal winter.
Today we have one distinct advantage over the Ingalls family: we’re not fighting blizzards. At least we can go outside. Throughout the nine Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder emphasized how much she (through her character Laura) enjoyed and needed to spend time outdoors. In these days of Zoom meetings, Google classrooms, and Netflix binges, it’s still important to get outside—maybe more important than ever for our own mental health.

In 1916, years before she wrote the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote, “Some things like fresh air and sunshine are hard to beat.” She included that wisdom in her column in the Missouri Ruralist. (Learn more about the writing career of Laura Ingalls Wilder here.). Her character of Laura certainly lived by those words. So can we.

Just as Ingalls spent the long, hard winter knowing the blizzards would eventually stop, we recognize our days confined to home will come to an end. We’ll get there.

And then we’ll be able to say—like Ma did—"All’s well that ends well.”

P.S. If you plan to read The Long Winter, consider subscribing to my author newsletter. Each month I include trivia for a different Little House book. June's newsletter will include trivia AND discussion questions for The Long Winter. Subscribers to this blog get bingo/trivia for all nine Little House books. Subscribe here.

P.P.S. Get your own printable of Laura’s fresh air and sunshine quote poster.

 Happy Trails!
 ~ Annette 

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