And to Think That It All Began with “The Long Winter”

This week, as a heavy winter snowstorm blanketed the Northern Great Plains, I found myself with the happy task of reading or rereading a lot of the popular and critical literature about Wilder: Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow, Ann Romines’s Constructing the Little House, and Elizabeth Jameson’s “In Search of the Great Ma” (Journal of the West 37 [Apr. 1998]), among others. The personal journeys of the women who wrote these works include a childhood familiarity with and love for the Little House books that ultimately led them to make the author the subject of their research. Each has her own personal encounter with Wilder herself (Romines) and/or the books (Fellman, Jameson). Other writers make their encounters with Wilder’s books the subject of their work: Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie or Nancy McCabe’s From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, for example. I came to realize that, just like these women, I have my own “Laura” story.

NTK in 5th Grade

Me in fifth grade.

It begins in the fifth grade at Notre Dame Academy in Mitchell, South Dakota, when Sister Kieran began to read The Long Winter out loud after lunch one day. The timing was significant because most of her pupils lived nearby, and we had just trudged through snow and wind, parked our rubber over-boots and snow-crusted winter coats and scarves in the cloakroom, and taken our seats in the warm classroom. Laura’s hard winter outlasted our own and made us all grateful that our winter had not matched hers (although there were one or two years in the fifties and sixties when that could not be said). It also made us proud that the Ingallses were South Dakota pioneers—after all, De Smet was just a few miles up the road.

Even before Sister Kieran finished The Long Winter, I had visited the Carnegie Library downtown and borrowed all the Wilder books in the original edition with the Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle illustrations. My favorite book would always be The Long Winter, but I also developed a fondness for On the Banks of Plum Creek (which had plenty of blizzards, too) and These Happy Golden Years with its harsh beginning at the Brewsters’ (more snowstorms!)  and its happy ending. As I grew up to become a sort-of hippy at the end of the 1960s, I thought that all I needed was a plot of land and a copy of Little House in the Big Woods to become self-sufficient (in the event of a nuclear blast or some other catastrophe). I never tested the theory, but I remain convinced that, just like Ma and Pa, I am fully capable of making cheese and smoking meatLongWinter1

While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Wilder’s influence directed my career choices, I did eventually turn to American literature (via foreign languages, linguistics, and a brush with archaeology) as my academic path of study and to editing as my profession. Along the way I was fortunate enough to edit and annotate some of the Dakota writings of L. Frank Baum (Our Landlady, 1996), who spent a couple of formative years in Aberdeen, South Dakota. As editor of South Dakota History, I also got to work with and edit two of William Anderson’s groundbreaking biographical and critical studies of Wilder: “The Literary Apprenticeship of Laura Ingalls Wilder” (1983) and “Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: The Continuing Collaboration” (1986). In 1997, I was invited to become a member of the board of directors of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, Inc., of De Smet, which is the curator of both the Surveyors’ House and the Ingalls Home. Serving on that board has been a privilege and a pleasure, and it has brought me close to many aspects of the Little Houses.

Then in 2005, when the South Dakota Historical Society Press decided to publish a biography series featuring the region’s important citizens, the first one the Press commissioned was Pamela Smith Hill’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (2007). A few years later, we began work on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, and again, I found the winter of 1880–1881 to be one of the high points of Wilder’s memoir, allowing me to sink my teeth into research in the newspapers of the period. Here I found that the burning of hay was an economy farmers practiced even before the long winter, that price gouging among merchants was not a failing only of Mr. Loftus, that the lonesome whistle of the last freight train into De Smet came a little later than Wilder remembered, and that American Indians had in fact acted as weather forecasters on other occasions.

And, for me, it all began on that snowy day in 1957, when Sister Kieran stood in front of the class and started to read, “The mowing machine’s whirring sounded cheerfully from the old buffalo wallow south of the claim shanty, where bluestem grass stood thick and tall and Pa was cutting it for hay.”

Nancy Tystad Koupal

I am grateful to classmate Susan Tessier Mollison who helped me refresh my memory of those long ago days at Notre Dame Academy.

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7 thoughts on “And to Think That It All Began with “The Long Winter”

  1. I truly treasure all the stories about one of my favorite authors, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Although I never lived any of the places she resided in, I grew up in the Texas Panhandle, where it could get pretty nippy in the winter time.

  2. Thank you, Nancy, for sharing your own personal remembrance of your first encounters with Wilder and the winters of her Little House world. You truly have lived the Dakota life. “The Long Winter” is still my favorite book in the series. Keep warm and Merry Christmas!

  3. It was in third grade at Litchfield Elementary in Mitchell that I was introduced to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Miss Earl, our stolid teacher, would settle us down as we returned at 1:00 o’clock from our one hour lunch break during which many of us went home, by reading to us for 10 minutes. She began the year reading “Little House in the Big Woods” and continued right through the series until the final day of school. I was hooked and throughout the summer, trekked to the Carnegie Library basement where the children’s books were housed at the time (1950’s) and continued reading every book Ms. Wilder had in print. I’ve given several sets of the Little House books as gifts to introduce grandchildren and others to these timeless stories.

  4. Thank you for all your hard work in continuing the legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. As an avid reader and poet, I do appreciate the work others. Thanks again.

  5. I really enjoyed your “Pioneer Girl” story. I wonder how many other now-grown “little girls” have a similar story to tell? My story started like yours in a classroom. Mine was in Pierre, SD, in 1959 when I was in the 4th grade. Mrs. Verdeen Campbell was reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder series to us after lunch. I listened raptly, then spent the rest of my formative years daydreaming of living off the land in a self-sufficient lifestyle. The name Laura became my favorite name, and I pretended I was Laura whenever I was alone and could play by myself. I was fortunate to live close to the Missouri River, and I would go to the untamed banks and woods and make playhouses from fallen cottonwood branches. My grandmother had told me stories of her early life in a sod house in Lyman County, SD, and I always pictured my grandmother as Ma and myself as Laura. Eventually, I married and moved away from SD without fulfilling my childhood fantasies, but the memory of how her books made me feel still comes back to me. I have obtained several other books about Laura and always wanted to know what happened after the “golden years” book ended. I moved to Kansas and have traced her journey overland to Topeka. I am so thankful for your ongoing updates and sharing of your passion with those of us who are similarly smitten.

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