On the Great Plains in January and February, the wind howls through the open spaces, sending snow and tumbleweeds scudding across the prairie. In town, the wind hurls itself at buildings, searching for a way in through any crack or cranny. Or so it seems to those of us who listen and watch as nature blasts and rattles the windowpanes. Laura Ingalls Wilder characterized the wind as doing “its best to blot out the town” of De Smet. In her autobiography, Wilder’s ability to give personality and malign intent to such natural elements foreshadowed the antagonistic role that wind and snow would assume in The Long Winter. In Pioneer Girl, however, Wilder immediately foretold the end of the story: “Here in his ages long war with the elements,” she wrote, “Man won though it was a hard, long battle.”1 In editing her mother’s autobiography, Rose Wilder Lane omitted this line, recognizing that Wilder had gotten ahead of her story.2
Wilder did not make the same mistake when drafting the novel she originally called “The Hard Winter.” She used each human encounter with a storm to increase the tension surrounding the battle with nature, as in this scene from Chapter 13: “‘I beat the storm to the stable by the width of a gnat’s eyebrow,’ [Pa] laughed. ‘It just missed getting me this time.’ . . . Pa sat by the fire in the front room and warmed himself, but he was uneasy and kept listening to the wind.”3 For all her ability to thus personify the storm by giving it human traits and motives, Wilder recognized that human beings could not successfully “battle” the storm but must simply endure it. As yet another blizzard rages “loud and furious” toward the end of The Long Winter, Pa reminds Laura that the storm “can’t beat us! . . . It’s got to quit sometime and we don’t. It can’t lick us. We won’t give up” (p. 311).
Hunkering down to outlast another winter on the Northern Great Plains, I take comfort in the fact that the Ingalls family and many others before and after them have refused to give up as wind and snow swept across the landscape. Like them, I’m grateful for a warm shelter and a cup of hot broth when the wind rattles the stovepipe and sends its frigid fingers around the windowsills and into the cracks.
Nancy Tystad Koupal
- Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 210.
- Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2021), pp. 290, 293n19.
- Wilder, “The Hard Winter” manuscript, p. 119, Rare Book Collection, Detroit Public Library, Detroit, Mich.