For at least a decade, like millions of readers, I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wanted to live in a dugout with a freshly swept dirt floor like she does in “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” or bat around the bladder of a freshly slaughtered pig like she does in “Little House in the Big Woods.” I wanted to pull leeches off my legs, be tormented by Nellie Olson. But most of all, I wanted to wait out a seven-month winter in a rickety wooden home, unable to see friends, shop for food, or even step outdoors at pain of death.
And now I have my chance.
In “The Long Winter,” the town of De Smet, in the Dakota Territory, is hit by a series of unending blizzards. For seven months in 1880-1881, the Ingalls family and their fellow townspeople are forced to remain shivering in their homes in minus-40-degree weather, without food, fuel, or their friends.
Like many pioneers, the Ingallses had struck a bargain with the government. In return for cheap land, homesteaders would settle it, creating schools, stores, counties. They were the tide heading West with the railroad—and they would displace and decimate the country’s indigenous people. In this bargain, the government was supposed to bring supplies by train. But when the trains stopped until spring, the inhabitants of De Smet starved and shivered, not knowing when or if the ordeal would ever end. Now I can share their tips for surviving in close quarters (each rule is a direct quote from the book), even when you want to push your loved ones out into the storm.
Rule No. 1: “It’s Going to Be a Hard Winter"
In times of crisis, you listen to the authorities. Before the storm solidifies, a “very old Indian” arrives by pony at the general store to inform “you white men” of De Smet that “heap big snow come.” The incoming storm, he goes on, will last seven “moons.” This wildly offensive, walking stereotype was, of course, created out of whole cloth by Wilder, but he was also right. In times of trouble, pay attention to the wisdom you’re offered. If the doctors say we must stand six moons apart, stand six moons.
Rule No. 2: “Salt Brings Out the Full Flavor of a Potato”
When you have limited provisions, simply lie to yourself about how good it tastes. When Ma improvises a green pumpkin pie, Pa declares, “It tastes exactly like apple!” He dismisses the lack of gravy by telling his wife, “Salt brings out the flavor of the potato.” Laura thinks the whole wheat bread has a “fresh, nutty taste” that is as good as butter. If only Pa were here to lie about my rainbow chard soup.
Rule No. 3: “All’s Well That Ends Well”
This is what the Ingalls family says every time someone narrowly escapes a terrible fate, like, say, walking into the open prairie and freezing to death, or being blindsided by a blizzard and just making it in the door. It’s important to remember that this bromide should be deployed only after surviving a terrifying incident, not if you’ve just forgotten to wash your hands or something.
Rule No. 4: “Living in Town, We’re in No Danger of Running Short of Any Kind of Supplies”
Oh REALLY? Coal might beat brushwood “all hollow” for heat, but what are you doing to do, Pa, when the railroad can’t bring you coal? Fear, hoarding, and price gouging set in almost immediately, as the bean barrel empties and the banker buys out the lumberyard. Laura’s future husband, Almanzo, who’s harvested and dragged his seed wheat all the way from Minnesota, builds a wall to hide it from the townspeople before they clear him out like the paper goods section at Target. Don’t depend on the train.
Rule No. 5: “Needs Must, When the Devil Drives”
When the coal barrel is empty, you have to get creative. For fuel, Pa and Laura spend their days in the lean-to, twisting hay into makeshift logs. For light, Ma makes a button lamp powered by axle grease. The girls pool their pennies to buy Pa a pair of suspenders for Christmas. As for me, I remembered that old trick of making a supersaturated salt solution to create a crystal on a string. It amused my son for a full five minutes. Put your mind to it, and you can do anything.
Rule No. 6: “Never Complain of What You Have ... You Are Fortunate To Have It”
When the snow gets so deep Pa has to dig a tunnel to get to the barn, he comments, “There’s nothing like snow for keeping out wind!” Almanzo’s sled goes down over and over on a perilous journey: “Nothing like exercise to keep a fellow warm!” Can’t stand the kitchen? Didn’t it keep you warm yesterday? People — have you ever had such an opportunity to clear out your closets, spend time with your family, and finish that novel? It’s not quarantine — it’s a mindfulness retreat.
Rule No. 7: “Blamed If That Old Tune Don’t Give Me the Spunk to Like Fighting Even a Blizzard!”
When all else fails, sing. This technique has two benefits: 1) It cheers you up, and 2) it allows you to scream. Pa and the family are fond of marching around to songs like “The Old Gray Mare, She Ain’t What She Used to Be,” and, “Oh, I Am As Happy As a Sunflower that Nods and Bends in the Breeze,” but if you don’t know those, you can simply say, “Alexa, play ’90s Hip-Hop.”
Rule No. 8: “The Speech of Regulus”
If your children will not do the homework their teachers have kindly provided, have them compete against each other by reciting Bible verses and all the speeches they’ve memorized in school. J/K! But seriously, competition is key. Just think about it. If Laura could still hold enough of a grudge 50 years later to vividly depict all the times Mary beat her at recitation, a YouTube workout battle between your kids could engross them while you do your obligatory Zoom meeting.
Rule No. 9: “Somebody’s Got to Go Get That Wheat”
Almanzo is not willing to give up the seed wheat he intends to plant in spring. But as the town starves, he decides it’s his responsibility to replace it. With Cap Garland, he sets off seeking a farmer who is rumored to have some wheat to sell. Putting their safety on the line, they get that wheat. Medical personnel, delivery personnel, food service employees, and all the other workers we’ve realized hold society together, we can’t thank you enough.
Lizzie Skurnick is a writer and editor, most recently of “Pretty Bitches: On Being Called Crazy, Angry, Bossy, Frumpy, Feisty, and All the Other Words That Are Used to Undermine Women.”