Guest post by Barb Mayes Boustead
Spring is here! Those of us who live on the Plains know the sense of relief all too well, how feeling mild temperatures and seeing green growth lifts the spirits. Warm weather arrived abruptly in mid-April after the last snow. Yet the town still waits for the trains, as manpower combines with nature to clear the snow and ice from the tracks. The snow has compacted, melted and refrozen, into a glacial pack that would take weeks to melt if left undisturbed.
To make matters worse, all of that melting snow has to go somewhere –- again, something well known by those of us in the Plains and upper Midwest this year – and the fields and roads are flooded. In fact, the flooding following the Hard Winter of 1880-81 was as historic as the winter itself, with many towns along the larger rivers like the Missouri, Red, and even the Mississippi experiencing record floods due to both ice jams and snow melt. Many of the record crests from 1881 still stand today, and many towns along these rivers suffered extensive damage; in fact, several towns either moved their sites or were wiped out altogether. But I digress! Here in DeSmet, the main impact of the flooding is to prevent transportation of supplies over land, emphasizing their reliance of the stalled rail system.
The winter has been hard on not only the health of the Ingalls family, but also their shelter, as the tar paper on the claim shanty has been shredded. Like so many other aspects of DeSmet life, repairs are stalled until the train can arrive with building supplies. To aid in clearing the way for the trains, Pa and other men in the area have been working to clear a smaller cut in between them and the still-stalled work train. He works until he shakes. Meanwhile, the family ekes out its meals from the last of the seed wheat. Supplies run low enough to scare Carrie into wondering if the family will be forced to eat newly sprouted grass to survive. (Perhaps her malnourished body is craving vegetables?)
Pa’s joke with Carrie about the grass has always intrigued me, standing out a bit from the rest of the dialogue. Nebuchadnezzar? When I read the book for the first time, sometime around age 9 or 10, I had to look that up… both the pronunciation and the meaning behind the allusion. I wonder if Pa is referring to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, that Carrie won’t have to eat her way through the sprouting plant life. But Pa makes the joke with Carrie as a mere 10-year-old herself, and apparently, she gets it without having to look it up. It’s interesting what kids had learned at earlier ages back in the day. *
The morning of April 30 has a Christmas-like feel for the family, as the girls scramble to get ready (“Wait up, Laura, I can’t find my stockings!”) and Laura sings her way down the stairs. But they’ve all forgotten about the Superintendent’s stuck train, and it is this and not a freight train that passes through. Mr. Woodworth, the depot manager, breaks into the train to ration whatever goods he can find in the train, likely with the aid of several men who were expecting to supply their families that day. Pa bends his moral code to take some of the supplies home to his family, knowing they ate the very last of the seed wheat just that morning. It’s not enough to resupply the town, but it is enough to fortify the family supplies and break the wheat bread diet. Ma protests, but only mildly before she sets out to cook a proper meal for her family.
*Editor’s note: The “No, Nebuchadnezzar!” joke is in reference to the story of King Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar was proud and believed he was a great ruler all on his own, and although warned to repent, he did not, and as a result, was punished by going mad for seven years, during which time he actually ate grass!! When the seven years was up, his sanity was restored and after that he gave God the credit for making him a great ruler. So Pa was teasing Carrie by calling her Nebuchadnezzar for suggesting they eat grass, like he did. It’s a relatively minor story so it’s not surprising that many would not get the joke unless very familiar with Old Testament history, but as a Christian school kid, I knew it even as a child and got the joke then, so it’s reasonable to me that the Ingalls girls, having been raised with an emphasis on Bible reading, study, and memorization, would also have understood the reference, even at Carrie’s age of 10. ~Rebecca Brammer