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Hope from Laura Ingalls Wilder

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In her new book The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion, Author Annette Whipple encourages children to engage in pioneer activities while thinking deeper about the Ingalls and Wilder families as portrayed in the nine Little House books. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion provides brief introductions to each Little House book, chapter-by-chapter story guides, and “Fact or Fiction” sidebars, plus 75 activities, crafts, and recipes that encourage kids to “Live Like Laura” using easy-to-find supplies, which are perfect for any quarantine education plan. Every aspiring adventurer will enjoy this walk alongside Laura from the big woods to the golden years.


 

Recent circumstances of isolation, empty store shelves, late mail, and closed schools aren’t a result of the weather, but we can relate to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book 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. In the past five months many 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 final potato 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.

As we read the book, we understand it was a brutal winter. Many wonder if Wilder exaggerated the blizzards of the 1880-1881 winter. The book is 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. Here’s an excerpt which explains a bit of what I learned from my research about that winter:

Fact or Fiction?

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.

South Dakota State Historical Society, South Dakota Archives

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 old-fashioned 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. The Ingalls family seemed to live by that wisom. So can we.

Just as Ingalls spent the long, hard winter knowing the blizzards would eventually stop, we recognize a new appreciation for time outdoors as stay-at-home orders have lifted.

Though the pandemic is not over, as the sun sets each day we can say—like Ma, “All’s well that ends well.”

Annette Whipple’s new book, The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide provides readers with historical context, real facts, 75 activities, and more for young readers. This excerpt is from chapter six, the companion chapter to Wilder’s book called The Long Winter. The chapter by the same name explores the brutal winter of 1880-1881. This is an activity from The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion.

Clothesline Path

During the blizzards of 1880-1881, Pa relied on the rope clothesline to go between the house and stable. Pa couldn’t see because of the intense wind and snow. It’s extremely difficult to judge distance and even location during a blizzard.

Use a rope (or string or yarn) to create a path to follow blindfolded. Make the path as long as the clothesline and low enough for all participants to hold easily. You might tie it to a porch and a tree or even between two chairs. Once the clothesline is set up, blindfold players and have them use the clothesline for a guide to get to the goal of the other end of the path. For more fun, have participants call out when they think they are halfway and nearly to the goal. See who is closest to being right!

P.S. If you’d like your own printable of Laura’s fresh air and sunshine poster, get it here.

About Annette Whipple

Annette Whipple celebrates curiosity and inspires a sense of wonder in young readers while exciting them about science and history. She’s the author of eight fact-filled children’s books, with titles like The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion, The Story of the Wright Brothers, and Whooo Knew? The Truth about Owls. When she’s not reading or writing, you might find Annette snacking on warm chocolate chip cookies with her family in southeastern Pennsylvania. She explores the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder at WilderCompanion.com. Learn more about Annette and her presentations at AnnetteWhipple.com.

 

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