Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book review and Dakota pioneer musings

Recently I read the book The Children's Blizzard, by David Laskin, and thought I’d tell you a bit about it.

Laskin does four things in this book. First, he recounts in vivid detail the surprise blizzard that struck the midsection of the US on January 13, 1888. Due to the fact that the storm hit with sudden ferocity without warning in the middle of an unseasonably warm winter day, it left farmers in the field, livestock out roaming the plains and hundreds of schoolchildren away from home. That many of these schoolchildren tried to make their way home through the storm and ended up getting lost and subsequently freezing to death has led to it being nick-named, “the children's blizzard."

Second, Laskin uses the book as an opportunity to recount the history of weather forecasting, or "indicating," as they called it back then, in the US. And since they lacked the technological equipment we have now, as well as much of today's scientific understanding of the environment, wind currents and weather patterns, all they really could do was "indicate" what they thought was going to happen. Their reports were therefore necessarily vague and open-ended, such as the one Laskin reports on page 110 of his book, "January 11, 1888 - For Minnesota and Dakota: Slightly warmer fair weather, light to fresh variable winds."

Suffice to say that the weather indicators of the day, from the US Army's Signal Corps, failed to accurately predict the onset of the storm and subsequent cold snap (we are talking sustained lows in the -40s). Or perhaps it is fairer to say that they did not warn of the storm until it was too late. But can you blame them? What they relied on, besides their scant knowledge, were telegrams from other indication stations further west. When the blizzard took shape and slammed down on north central Montana, then traveled south and east, the indicators in St Paul, which covered the Dakotas, had only the telegrams bearing the news of the blizzard’s path to guide them. And by the time they got their warning out, it was literally moments before the blizzard hit.

Third, Laskin recounts the singular story of the Dakota pioneer experience. He tells of why they came to the US (mainly from Scandinavia and Germany), what their expectations were, what confronted them when they got here and why so many of them failed. This is the part of the book that held me the most, for reasons I’ll explain later.

And finally, he describes what it is like to die of cold and what happens to the body when it freezes. For this he channels his inner Norman Maclean and gets close, but really no one can match Maclean's sparsely powerful prose. In his Young Men and Fire Maclean describes death by fire and heat suffocation so vividly and with such purity, that I am not sure anyone will ever match his storytelling genius:

"I have had to learn a good many things to tell this story - one is how it might feel to die in the heat of the Inferno. Since the Inferno is also a pit, I have had to learn how to die in the Inferno always falling down, and always falling down I now know is a terrible way to die - it destroys the confidence before it destroys the body, and it must be terrible to die with nothing left but the body." (Maclean, Norman, Young Men and Fire, University of Chicago Press, 1992, page 205.)

But back to The Children's Blizzard. Sorry for the slight detour. Perhaps it is all a way of saying that while a worthwhile read, Laskin's book doesn't touch Maclean. Not that many people do. As a hike into Mann Gulch is on the schedule for this summer, we'll come back to Maclean and do him and his book justice at a later date.

The reason why I read this book in the first place, and why it held my interest the way it did, enough for me to write a long winded post about it, is my enduring fascination with the Dakota pioneer experience. This all started with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books. I am not sure when I first read them, I only know that since that time I have reread and reread and reread them until I can almost quote them verbatim. It used to be that whenever I was sick I would lay in bed and go through them all from her beginnings in Wisconsin to her early marriage hardships on the Dakota prairies.

When I was a young girl I would pretend that I was her. I built a tee-pee fashioned out of ohia tree branches and spent hours on the volcanic lava tube that sits in my parent's front yard imagining that I was actually on the Dakota plains. And then in my advanced Chinese class in graduate school we were assigned to write an essay in Chinese on a dream we had. Never mind that it was right around Martin Luther King Day, I didn't get the real meaning of the assignment. So I wrote an essay in Chinese the title of which translated to, "I dreamed of South Dakota." It was all about how most people grow up dreaming that they are in Hawaii, while I grew up in Hawaii dreaming I was in South Dakota living the pioneer life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The day the essays were returned I got held behind class and my Chinese teacher gently reproached me, saying that everyone else had talked about world peace, education for all, the end to childhood epidemics, etc and that my essay was not exactly what she had in mind. However, because there was nothing technically wrong with the essay, she was going to give me an A. Only I should know better next time. Whatever.

But now I do know better. I was wrong. All pretending aside, I couldn't have made it on the prairie. I would never have survived.

You see, years later when T and I were getting ready to move across the country for work, I grumbled about the long drive this would necessitate, little knowing that this would become an annual event. In order to placate me on this first cross-country trip (remember that I am a Hawaii girl and my “long” drives never lasted longer than three hours), T promised that he would plan a route that would go out of our way to visit sites in Laura's life. A trip to her Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri where she wrote her books and even better, a detour to DeSmet, South Dakota, the original, "little town on the prairie," the setting for five of her books.

And so I stopped complaining and we went. It was a trip to remember. First, Mansfield, Missouri and the sweet, rolling, forested hills of the Ozarks. Rocky Ridge Farm is unsurprisingly on a rocky ridge, with a lovely old white farmhouse, built entirely by Almanzo Wilder. It is full of charm and ingenuity.

 The magical place where the magical books were written can be glimpsed here, as we gazed into the pastures that surrounded the house.

The museum across the street is filled with THE ARTIFACTS THAT MATTER. I remember running across the parking lot to T, who opted to explore the lovely grounds while taking our old husky Harley on a walk. I was yelling, "Pa's fiddle! Pa's fiddle! They have Pa's fiddle and Laura's name cards and the daily bread plate!" And he just looked at me with the same patient, half-comprehending look I get almost every day when I rant to him.

A day after we left Mansfield, Missouri we hit the Great Plains and my mind was instantly seared clear by the roaring wind. Any foolish notion I had of my suitability to the pioneer life was swept away along with the four tractor trailers that overturned on I-90 in South Dakota that day and closed it down for hours (in April mind you). It howled and ripped unrelentingly through our clothes. It was an exciting adventure, fun for a day, likely intolerable for longer.

While in DeSmet we put our heads down to the wind and made our way through the obligatory sites.

Above is the surveyor’s house where the Ingalls family spent their first winter in the Dakota Territory from By the Shores of Silver Lake. Touching that Laura describes that house as big. Her exact words were, "Laura thought there must have been a great many surveyors to need so much space. This would be by far the largest house she had ever lived in" (Wilder, Laura Ingalls. By the Shores of Silver Lake, 1939, Harper Collins, page. 144).

This is the original schoolhouse attended by Laura and Carrie in Little Town on the Prairie.

The site of the town home of the Ingalls family, right along Main Street.

Main Street DeSmet, almost as I would have imagined it, standing lonely in the wide expanse of the prairie.

Then out to the prairie to the Ingall's "claim" homestead to the south of town. The line of cottonwoods Pa planted in By the Shores of Silver Lake are still there, as is a memorial where the house once stood. Lonely monuments to the trials of the pioneers on the wind swept, empty land.

 The cottonwoods then. As Pa says in By the Shores of Silver Lake: "I dug enough of these seedlings to make a windbreak clear around the shanty. You are going to have your trees growing Caroline, quick as I can get them set in the ground." (Wilder, Laura Ingalls. By the Shores of Silver Lake, 1939, Harper Collins, page. 274).

The cottonwoods now.

The memorial where the Ingall's home stood on the claim.

And finally, Laura and Almanzo's failed tree claim, soberly devoid of anything but rustling prairie grass. Very few trees can withstand that wind.

And then there was the entire prairie experience that made me realize how insane I was to aspire to prairie-girlhood. It wasn't just the wind. In fact, during those brief moments when the wind stopped blowing momentarily, the intensity of the stillness seemed apocalyptical.  Again, back to Laura: "But there was something else here that was not anywhere else. It was an enormous stillness that made you feel still. And when you were still, you could feel great stillness coming closer." (Wilder, Laura Ingalls. By the Shores of Silver Lake, 1939, Harper Collins, page. 60).

And then there was the fact that one of the local museums contained the layout for a traditional claim shanty. Staring at it, I realized that the entire Ingalls family, by then a family of six, lived in a structure that was no larger than the average put-it-together-yourself storage shed and considered it normal. No way.

Later, Laura's sister Carrie Ingalls (Remember her as being shy and timid in the books?), would hold her own claim on the Dakota prairie. Here she is standing outside her shanty. See what I mean?

All I saw that day made the pioneer prairie experience come alive the way no book or word could. Everything was instantly recognizable from her books, and yet at the same time so foreign. Especially at night when everywhere you looked, you saw only the deepest black.

We have since driven back and forth across the Dakotas many times on our way to Idaho. I have come to appreciate the howling wind (for very short periods of time) and waving prairie grass. The endless cornfields of eastern South Dakota have come to seem incongruous and out of place. Still, the western parts of South and North Dakota remain wild and unknowable to me. It is here where I can imagine the reactions the Dakota pioneers had when they came face to face with their new home.

In 1862 the Homestead Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Lincoln. It allowed individuals to file “claims” on 160-acre tracts of federal land west of the Mississippi River. In order to receive the deed to the land, it had to be occupied by the claimant for five years and improvements had to be made during that time. The intent was not just encouraging western migration from the "crowded" east, it was also to increase national agricultural yields and to tame and “Americanize” the empty infinity of the Great Plains. Of course the federal land under the Homestead Act had not always been empty. For centuries it had been the heart of the thriving Plains Indian country. But they were gone now, chased and herded to reservations, the massive American buffalo herds disappearing with them.

By the time the Ingalls moved to the Dakota plains in 1879, the land was indeed “empty.” Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father, was one of the very first residents of the town of DeSmet. When they arrived, the grouping of settlers was made up of a primitive railroad encampment and “Pa,” himself a failed farmer, worked on the railroad line, serving as timekeeper and clerk. The town of DeSmet literally grew up around them. Laura spent her summers on their claim and the winters in town. She doesn’t refer specifically to the “children’s blizzard” of Laskin’s book, but she does speak of many other blizzards during that infamous winter of 1887-1888 in The Long Winter. In this excerpt she describes the shocking suddenness of a blizzard’s arrival, seemingly from out of thin air: "Suddenly there was no sunshine.  It went out, as if someone had blown out the sun like a lamp. The outdoors were gray, the windowpanes were gray, and at the same moment a wind crashed against the schoolhouse, rattling windows and doors and shaking the walls" (Wilder, Laura Ingalls.The Long Winter, 1940, Harper Collins, page. 144).

Laura’s pioneer experience was in some sense different from those of other settlers. She was born in the US, of parents who were native-born and had roots back east. Many of the other Dakota settlers came straight from their narrow, over-farmed and crowded valleys in Central and Northern Europe, uprooted, vulnerable, seeking more and cleaner air to breathe and a better life for their children. They came for the usual reasons, with the optimism of naive and ignorant explorers at the dawn of an age where boundaries must have suddenly seemed transparent. What they got instead were furious Dakota winters, droughts, locusts plagues and prairie fires in the summer, fevers and more and more debt. The farming experience these people came with was of the small, tiny plots in Germany and Scandinavia. Winter experience, yes, but nothing like they would endure on the plains. Cultivation of crops, yes, but nothing like the scale they were forced to reckon with, and in conditions wholly unknown to them. And absolutely no understanding of that piercing, shrieking, unending Dakota wind. Laskin implies that the settlers were set up to fail, and many did.

Today, these pioneers are revered in history and lore, as the ones who made our country great. Perhaps this honor is overstated. For what the Little House books and The Children's Blizzard shows us is that perhaps it was less spine and more circumstance. What choice did they have? They couldn't return to the old country. The choice was to stay there on the vast open prairie where at least the air was fresh, or move to the crowded cities of St. Paul or Chicago and earn a subsistence living doing factory work for 12+ hours a day. At least out here on the plains, your destiny was more or less in your hands. Work hard in this life and hope that your children's life would be better.

And for them it worked. I think the one thing that I have learned from my reading and trips through South Dakota is that one of the most enduring legacies of the pioneers on the prairie has been the institutionalization of the sacred "Heartland farmer" in the American psyche. But I feel this sentiment is misplaced. The pioneers, ancestors to the Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota farmers that we are told are the glue that holds our country together, were ignorant of much that makes their descendants successful - irrigation, synthetic pesticides, nitrogen fertilizers, genetically-modified seed, not to mention subsidies. Instead they dealt with drought, locust plagues, debilitating winters that it took half the year to recover from physically, mentally and practically (thaws brought devastating flooding), by which time came the prairie fires, insects and disease. The prairie pioneers changed our country in ways both good and bad, and are deserving of their place in our nation's history. As for what the legacy of today's industrial farmers will be, only time will tell.

Laura expresses the spirit of the age perfectly: "The incurable optimism of the farmer who throws his seed on the ground every spring, betting it and his time against the elements, seemed inextricably to blend with the creed of her pioneer forefathers that 'it is better farther on' - only instead of farther on in space, it was farther on in time, over the horizon of the years ahead instead of the far horizon of the west." (Wilder, Laura Ingalls, The First Four Years, 1971, Harper Collins, 133-134).

1 comment:

  1. What an great post. I vividly remember watching little house in my nighty, having milk and cookies. It was almost a ritual and never missed. Now I have to go read those books and Children's Blizzard too. Your blog will give a whole new dimension to those stories.