Tuesday 16 January 2024

January ICE Book Tuesday

 Here is a special "Polar Vortex" supplementary Book Tuesday post from VSA member Marian Gibbard.

The Victorian Society of Alberta

The Beautiful Snow: The Ingalls Family, the Railroads, and the Hard Winter of 1880-1881

by Cindy Wilson, 2020

Author’s website with additional background information: https://cindywilson-author.com/

Readers familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about her life as a settler in the 1880’s American West will recall the events of the cold, hard winter described in The Long Winter.  But how many of the events of the novel can be backed up with verifiable facts? How closely does the fictionalised winter of 1880-1881 align with actual historical, first hand data and accounts of life around the town of De Smet?

Cindy Wilson’s book, ‘The Beautiful Snow’, seeks out the answers to those questions utilizing local newspapers, railway archives and other primary sources.  The result is a fascinating and educational window into six months of (mostly winter) life for white settlers in what was then known as the Dakota Territory.

The book takes us through winter of October 1880 to April 1881 month by month, chronicling changes in the weather, events in various towns, and attempts by the various rail companies to continue with ‘business as usual’ or adapt to the changing conditions.  Excerpts from local newspapers, railway records, personal letters and other sources provide first hand accounts of the struggles and triumphs as people attempted coped with the uncooperative weather.

Supply chain issues, now so familiar to us in these recent times, caused just as much frustration and uncertainty then.  Communications suffered also, as the newspapers were unable to print and telegraph lines failed.  Rumours and speculation abounded, alternately stirred and discounted by the newspapers.  Travel was restricted, and at times dangerous, and yet people travelled anyways.  

There are multiple areas of interest covered by this book - the expansion of railways on the American prairies; winter frontier life and culture; the role of newspapers in settlement and boosterism; market forces, merchandising and the economy of the American West in the 1880’s; as well as the gaps and adjustments found between a fictionalised story and actual lived experience of a series of verifiable events.

I have found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable read.  It is not totally necessary to have read ‘The Long Winter’ by Laura Ingalls Wilder before reading ‘The Beautiful Snow’  but it would be helpful to at least be reasonably familiar with the events and characters.  Additional supporting information including more maps, the full text of some newspaper articles, relevant website links, and material for a book club study is found on the author’s website at https://cindywilson-author.com/resources/

Additional reading:

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Amazon link: https://www.amazon.ca/Long-Winter-Full-Color/dp/0060581859/

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