Once a year during the fall or winter season, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. This is her account of her family’s efforts to survive the hard winter of 1880-1881 in the Dakota Territory. A blizzard cuts their little community off from contact with the outside world, and food becomes scarce. The trains can’t get through to deliver groceries and other much-needed items, and it’s up to Almanzo Wilder (whom Laura eventually marries), and a friend, to make the dangerous trek across the prairie to find wheat.
As a child, something about this book resonated deep within me. The simply worded account of the family’s hardships tugged at my heartstrings. The Ingalls family had my full sympathy. I could easily put myself in their shoes, for wasn’t I, in a sense, stranded on an emotional prairie of sorts, in dire need of sustenance to feed my starving soul?
Oh, how vividly I imagined their plight! My imagination often led me away from that blasting Dakota blizzard, changing the details and characters until I envisioned my dad–banished and cut off from me through the harsh storm of divorce–braving the elements, risking his very life to find his way through the blizzard of loneliness and despair to rescue me from a fate worse than physical starvation.
I imagined him in tattered coat, his feet nearly shoeless, arriving some dark and stormy night on our doorstep, exhausted. We would think his knocking part of the noisy storm at first, perhaps nothing more than a tree branch beating against the house. But as the incessant knocking continued, something within me would know. Braving the fierce elements of my stepdad’s anger and mother’s disapproval, I would race to fling open the door and take my poor father in my arms, half-dragging his nearly limp figure into the warmth of our home.
“Pa!” I imagined myself crying out, “Oh, Pa!” Half dead from hunger, and a touch of frostbite, dad’s face would light up at first sight of me.
“Half pint,” he’d call out in his hoarse, croaky voice. Our embrace would be brief, for I knew from the way he trembled in my arms that he was in serious danger of collapsing.
“Oh how did you ever get through when even the trains couldn’t?” I’d ask him tenderly.
“Love,” I imagined his response. “Love and determination. No stinking blizzard of circumstances could ever keep us apart! Half pint, I’ve come to rescue you from the frostbite of the soul you’ve suffered at the hands of these terrible people.”
This was a long speech for him, in his weakened condition. Tsking and saying softly, there, there, I calmed him into silence to spare what little strength he had left.
Of course my little prairie fantasy always broke down at this point. I simply couldn’t imagine an ending to this scenario, at least not one which bode well for me or my dad. As if mother would allow anyone to thaw out and drip water on her new wall-to-wall! As if my stepdad would allow my dad to cross the threshold of the domain he’d wrested from him years earlier, after having stolen his wife and kids!
This time of year I get a strong craving for this book. I know it by heart, just as I know by heart the saga of my childhood tribulations. In each case I know the ending as well. Things worked out just fine for the Ingalls. The frozen snow thawed, the train made it through, and they ended up with a fat Christmas turkey in spring. During the hard months of their deprivation, they learned fortitude and patience.
My father and I fared much worse. Struggling to raise my 2 older brothers, with the handicap of PTSD which was the aftermath of his war years, he stumbled along, stunned even years later at the sudden decimation of the little family he so cherished. And I, oh I stumbled along as well, blinded by the unexpectedly harsh blow life had dealt me.
I read the Little House on the Prairie series devotedly, with a mixture of enjoyment (for how rewarding it was when the Ingalls family made it through yet another trial with their spirits undampened!) and emotional angst (oh, if only my life read like a book with a happy ending! If only threatening blizzards and lack of supplies were the only elements one had to fear!)
This year I hope to read this tale, once again, on schedule. Reading is one of the things I can no longer enjoy, so I may have to do a bit of negotiating with my parts. While they may have grown weary of all the books I used to devour (oh happy times!), I yearn to immerse myself once more in the printed page, reliving all over again that sparse Dakota winter when the Ingalls proved their ability to weather any storm.