If you follow my regular blog, you know that I am a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder geek. I actually blame her for my mid-life crisis and my moving to South Dakota! However, I also learned that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book The Long Winter is a textbook example of an author raising the stakes and developing tension in order to advance the plot.
I’ve been a fan of Wilder’s books since I was a girl. Recently, I went up to DeSmet, South Dakota to watch the annual Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant. Every year, a group of volunteers perform in a play based on one of Wilder’s four novels set in DeSmet. Four of Laura’s books were set in the town of DeSmet, South Dakota. This year’s pageant performance was an adaptation of The Long Winter. This novel told of the Ingalls’ family’s struggle to survive the Hard Winter of 1880-81. The Ingalls Family, as well as the entire town of DeSmet, faced starvation when a constant barrage of blizzards kept trains from coming through to bring in supplies.
As my husband and I began the two hour drive back to Sioux Falls, we talked about the pageant performance. My husband has never read any of Wilder’s books, so I filled in the blanks for him. I came away from this year’s pageant feeling that something was lacking in the story. As I gave my husband a synopsis of the book, I realized what exactly was missing from the play: the drama and tension of the book itself. Some of the most dramatic scenes in the book were “told”, rather than performed. Granted, there were limitations with the set and with time; however, this omission affected the overall play.
The Long Winter constantly raises the stakes for its characters. The moment the characters think things are going to be all right, the worst possible thing happens. When things can’t seem to get any worse, they do. Here is a sampling of the stakes involved in this book (spoiler alert):
The winter of 1880-81 is the first full winter after a majority of the residents filed on their homesteads. Most of that spring and summer was spent getting established in their new homes and farms as well as their businesses. Prairie sod was tough to break. Because prairie grasses’ roots are so thick and tangled, a special breaking plow needed to be used to do the work. After the sod has been broken, it needs time to “rot”. This means that the grasses and the roots need time to decompose before anything can be planted. Ideally, a homesteader would break sod in the fall and then let it “rot” over the winter. In the spring, homesteaders would then plow the area again before planting. Not much can actually grow in first year sod.
The residents of DeSmet count on the trains coming to bring in supplies. However, blizzards kept coming one after another, most of them lasting for three or four days. As soon as the tracks are cleared of snow, another blizzard buries them again. The railroad superintendent decides that nothing more will be done until spring.
After the trains stop running, supplies dwindle, which, in turn, drives up prices. As anyone who has ever moved knows, getting set up in a new place takes money. In an agrarian society, most of a person’s income comes from farming. No cash crops=no money. Banker Ruth bought the last of the flour in town for a dollar a pound, or $50 for the entire sack. In today’s dollars, that would come to $22.30 a pound or $1115.20. (Calculations were done using this inflation calculator and using the latest data available.)
The families are forced to be resourceful when coal, kerosene and flour run out. Without coal, the families of DeSmet have no way to heat their homes. The original tall grass prairies were virtually treeless, so there were no trees to chop down for firewood. The lumberyard also ran out of wood. Citizens began twisting hay into sticks to burn. Ma Ingalls made a button lamp with fabric, a button and axle grease to help give light when there was no more kerosene. Wheat is available and the Ingalls family grind it in their coffee grinder in order to make bread and have food to eat.
When things seem bleak, a herd of antelope is spotted near town. The men, armed with hunting rifles, organize a hunting party in hopes of obtaining food for the hungry town. Hopes are dashed when one member of the party, Mr. Foster, gets too excited and scares away the antelope herd.
Because blizzards were so unpredictable, even the people who lived in town were isolated, as nobody wanted to risk going out and getting caught in a blizzard.
As what little wheat there is runs out, the townspeople hear a rumor about a settler who lives twenty miles away from town who raised a wheat crop. The settler, a man by the name of Anderson, filed on his homestead long before the land rush in the spring of 1880 and he had a year up on everyone else. Although it’s a rumor, Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland risk the cold and the possibility of getting caught in a blizzard to find this settler and convince him to sell some of his wheat to them to prevent the town from starving.
Almanzo and Cap find this settler, who is initially reluctant to sell his wheat, but eventually relents. On the way home, they are delayed when one of the sleds tip over, spilling its contents. The duo is delayed when they have to stop and re-stack the sled.
Almanzo and Cap barely make it back to DeSmet just as another blizzard strikes the town.
Keeping readers hooked involves authors constantly raising the stakes for the characters. Without this tension, characters do not grow and change. At the end of the book, the characters have survived the winter and have come from their experience forever changed. The central conflict in this book is survival in spite of some very overwhelming odds.
If you are having trouble creating tension and raising the stakes with your characters, I suggest reading The Long Winter. This book is a clear and an excellent example of how to raise the stakes and maintain that tension.