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.

Wheels of Fire(trucks)

On the whole, our circumstances here at the South Dakota Historical Society Press are not much like those of Laura Ingalls. We do, it’s true, work in a building cut into the side of a hill, and oxen could easily wander over the roof, supposing there were any oxen around. But we all felt a little closer to her two weeks ago, when we experienced our very own prairie fire.

Miniature prairie fire at the CHC, October 2013

As you can see, our parking lot is being rebuilt, and the fire began with some sparks from a machine cutting metal. From its humble beginnings, the fire took off downwind, devouring the drought-parched natural prairie grasses that make up our front lawn. (While we evacuated the building, the statue, Dale Lamphere’s Citadel, regarded the threat with more or less equanimity.)

As Ma says with relief in On the Banks of Plum Creek (p. 275), “there is nothing in the world so good as good neighbors,” and presently our good neighbors arrived in the form of the Pierre Volunteer Fire Department.

The firefighters in action

They extinguished the fire in a few minutes. It did no damage to the stone face of our building but scarred the earth impressively.  And yet only two weeks later, green shoots are in evidence on the burned ground. Even so late in the season, the miniature prairie ecosystem is working to restore itself.

Green shoots ascend from the ashes

It’s a sight that might have given Laura Ingalls, and all those who have experienced danger and disappointment on the prairie, hope for the future.

But we’re keeping an eye out for grasshoppers just the same.

Rodger Hartley

When is a crab not a crab?

When it’s Laura Ingalls’s ultimate weapon in the struggle against Nellie Oleson.

Fearsome creatures roam through the pages of Wilder’s novels: howling wolves, screaming panthers, devastating grasshoppers, hungry bears lurking in the woods, and a badger that sends Laura into headlong retreat. But pound for pound, what can compare with the animal that Laura meets while wading in a pleasant pool? Ever-vigilant, swift to attack, slow to disengage, alien in form and bellicose in disposition, audacious, ferocious, tenacious: it is the Jabberwock of the Minnesota prairie, the legendary beast of Plum Creek—of course, I mean the old crab.

It is clear that her encounter with this crusty old crustacean made a strong impression on Wilder, who was eight or nine years old at the time. The crab first appeared in her autobiography, Pioneer Girl, where it is clear, as it is from her detailed description in On the Banks of Plum Creek (p. 129), that the animal was not, in fact, what we would call a crab. So what was it?

Orconectes virilis, one of the crayfish species indigenous to southwestern Minnesota.

“Don’t tread on me.”
Image by D. Gordon E. Robertson.

As it happens, we are not the first ones to ask. Wilder’s daughter and editor Rose Wilder Lane wondered, too, and wrote Wilder for clarification. Lane included her own description of a crab: about the size of a turtle, with eyes “like a snail’s,” and appearing somewhat like an oversize spider. Lane suggested that the creature that Wilder saw might really have been a crawdad or crayfish. Wilder confirmed her daughter’s suspicions but also affirmed that young Laura had not been frightened for no reason: “I assure you he was enormous.”1

One might wonder why Lane let the error stand, but perhaps that’s the wrong question. To declare Wilder’s usage to be an error is to make unwarranted assumptions about her historical and linguistic context. Wilder agreed that it was not a crab, but added, “we always called them crabs.” Wilder was no more wrong in calling her crawdad a crab than a Texan is wrong in calling her 7-Up a coke. Some words simply had different meanings to Wilder and her neighbors, and our job as annotators is to suggest an explanation when something doesn’t seem to make sense. It usually comes down to differences in time, place, and circumstance.

I would point out that none of the three crayfish species indigenous to southwestern Minnesota is exactly “enormous,” either—but history—and biography—are all about context. Wilder’s “crab” may not really have been so huge, but it clearly made an enormous first impression. Try running into one for the first time as an eight-year-old, with no internet or Animal Planet to prepare you, and let me know how it goes for you.

We know how it went for Nellie Oleson.

Rodger Hartley

1. The correspondence discussed here between Wilder and Lane dates to the summer of 1936 and is found in Wilder’s papers at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.