The odds of there being a white Christmas here in Pierre are looking slim. Festive decorations abound, but the unseasonably warm temperatures make it hard to believe that we are in the thick of the holiday season. This year being my first living in South Dakota, I can’t help but be somewhat disappointed. The lack of cold, snowy weather certainly seems a stark contrast to the Ingalls family’s idyllic first Christmas in Dakota Territory in 1879. As Wilder describes it in Pioneer Girl, they enjoyed ample snow, homemade gifts, and a bountiful feast of “jack rabbit roast, mashed potatoes, beans, warm biscuit and dried apple pie with tea.” While jackrabbit would not be my first choice—especially considering the precipitous decline of South Dakota’s jackrabbit population in recent years—I don’t doubt that Wilder had, as she claimed, a “jolly Christmas” (pp. 185–186).
A white Christmas often means bad roads, like the ones this horse-drawn plow attempted to clear in Fort Pierre, circa 1915. South Dakota State Historical Society
Jolly, at least, for the Ingalls clan. Ella and Robert Boast seemingly had a less pleasant experience. The Boasts, who hailed from Iowa, had acquired a homestead near De Smet and planned to spend the winter there. They made it to Dakota just in time for Christmas but arrived in a harried condition. As Wilder writes, due to deep snow on the roads, “they were many days later than they had planned and at last about six miles back their sled had stuck in a snow drift” (p. 185). The Boasts unhitched their horses and rode to the Ingalls house, where they warmed up by the fire. The next day, they joined the family for Christmas dinner, and the Ingalls children hastily made them presents. Things turned out fine for the Boasts, and the weather improved, too—“the snow was nearly gone” by New Year’s Day (p. 186). Of course, the denizens of De Smet would not be so lucky the following year, when they endured a winter so hard that it inspired a stand-alone book in the Little House series and at least one in-depth climatological study.
While a conspicuous lack of winter weather—or jackrabbits, for that matter—is no cause for celebration, there is a silver lining to this holiday season’s dearth of snow. Those planning to drive long distances this weekend, myself included, will not have to grapple with the treacherous road conditions that befell the Boasts.
Happy Holidays, and safe travels, from the Pioneer Girl Project.
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.
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 meat
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.