Anyone who has been a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books will know the story of The Long Winter. In a new railroad town on the Dakota prairie, Laura and her family survive a particularly bad winter that nearly sees the town starve to death.
In The Beautiful Snow, author Cindy Wilson has researched newspaper articles and other accounts of that winter to give a detailed impression of what was happening at the time. This includes information on just what made all of the snow such a hard problem for the railroads to keep up with as well as what impeded efforts to get supplies to these towns that were cut off.
Wilson uses maps to show the region and where the trains were running at the time. It’s good to know because it can be hard to visualize in this day and age of highways that keep us connected. A train line might have been open to one town but not another. Going back to her books, I didn’t really understand the relationship of Walnut Grove to DeSmet (where she begins and ends the book By The Shores of Silver Lake). Finally, she also shows railroad documents that also create a better understanding of how things were working more than 140 years ago.
The result is a book that is a must-read for fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. Wilson takes it month-by-month to show how much snow was actually falling and what the response was to that. Each month she shows a calendar of when the snow was actually falling, compiled from reading through newspaper archives. She refers back to The Long Winter frequently and tries to match events described there to accounts she finds in newspaper archives. I think it snowed less than what I imagined reading her books, but it was still pretty hard to fathom having all of that snow.
She also gives good information on what was happening with the settling of the Dakotas. These railroad towns were designed for the new settlers, and to attract people to them, many of the newspapers engaged in “boosterism” or an attempt to downplay the hardships of that winter. Therefore, even the positive spin from the newspapers has to be taken with a grain of salt. However, it is insightful because it responds to some of the rumors that were floating around about towns with no food. Whether the rumors were accurate and the newspaper editors were engaging in boosterism is up for debate.
Also of note is how the communities responded to even the rumor that someone was without food. Wilson details the case of one instance where people hears that rumor and went out specifically looking for those people outside of town to help them out with food. There was no blaming them for not having the foresight to have a better supply of food. There was no one arguing that it was too risky. The community just went out and helped without asking if the people “deserved” it. That’s something that is sorely missing from society today.
I also learned a few things I hadn’t understood from reading the Little House books. One thing was what an emigrant car was on a train. At the end of The Long Winter, the first train into town only has these and the townspeople break into one for food. This was how settlers sent their belongings to their new homes, often at the railroad’s expense to encourage settlement.
The amount of research that went into The Beautiful Snow is pretty staggering, and it’s presented very well. I enjoyed this so much and it gave me greater insight into the “pioneer experience” in the Dakotas. It’s a great complement to The Long Winter. I found it to be an easy and interesting read.