Guest post by Barbara Mayes Boustead
The chapter begins on a hopeful note, on a day full of sunshine. After the day’s chores, Pa heads across the street to hear the news. He returns with 4 pounds of ox meat to supplement the family’s diet. He has spent a fair amount on it, purchased from Foster at 25 cents per pound. Surely he makes this extravagant purchase knowing the impact of the news that he heard in town, knowing that he must think of how the Ingalls family will continue to eat through the winter.
Pa reluctantly shares the news that the trains will not be running for the rest of winter. Ma, somewhat uncharacteristically though certainly understandably, freaks out just a bit, fretting how they are going to live through spring without trains. As in the good old days in the Big Woods, Pa spins a parable for the girls, weaving an entertaining tale that also teaches a moral lesson. He also uses the story to make light of a rather bleak situation. The story of the train superintendent evokes a lesson of the patience and perseverance needed to live in the West.
The series of blizzards has kept the train tracks covered in snow, with snow blowing into the cuts to the top of the last snow accumulation. With little time between storms, crews have been unable to clear the tracks on the Chicago & Northwestern line, and trains have been unable to run. The superintendent arrives from The East to figure out for himself how to keep the trains running. Pa does give credit to the man for being willing to do the work he asks of his employees. He takes over the operation, culminating in an attempt to ram a locomotive through an icy drift.
Was the superintendent wrong to give up? Was there any method, any amount of “stick-to-itiveness” that would have opened the tracks? Without modern technology, relying on shovels, picks, and steam-powered locomotives, the Chicago & Northwestern train company (and the settlers helping out) might not have had the tools to keep up with the weather. Perhaps the superintendent opted to not risk the lives of his employees to spin their wheels on a fruitless task. Or, perhaps he got frustrated and threw in the towel after his brightest idea didn’t work.
The train has not passed through De Smet since late December, and it will not return for about another three months. Pa indicates that they “only” have to get through the rest of January and all of February, expecting spring to arrive in March. Again, foreshadowing rears its head in the form of optimism, as winter conditions actually continued through April. There will be no re-supplying the town.
Laura is mature enough to be aware that the current stores of food at the Ingalls house are not adequate. With a squeeze of her arm from Pa, she understands that she must “stand by” Pa and Ma, setting an example of cheeriness for the rest of the family. She leads the girls up the stairs with a song, then as a blizzard strikes, ponders the loneliness of the town, and each house in it.