I suppose every season has countless poems and stories written about it or set in that season. Certainly, when it comes to summer there is a multitude of songs and writings about the lazy days, the burning heat, the carefree life. But, to me—and perhaps it’s a by-product of being out here on the Great Plains—it seems like winter is the “season of choice” for our authors.
Whether it’s a memoir, fiction, poetry, Native American history, or scholarly work on environmental history, it seems as if winter is the season of the Plains. I shudder (shiver?) to think of the schoolchildren who died in the 1888 Children’s Blizzard, or the homesteaders who tried to stay warm in their “soddies,” or even the farmers and ranchers of more modern times who tied themselves to their houses while they made their way to their barns during a blinding snowstorm in order to milk cows or feed the livestock.
“Never risk getting separated,” Lecia remembered hearing her pioneer grandfather say when he told of burying the dead from the January blizzard of 1888, the one still called the Schoolchildren’s Storm. “Never get separated and never stop moving until you find shelter,” wrote Mari Sandoz in Winter Thunder. She goes on: “With their hands so awkwardly useless, someone stumbled every few steps . . . the crying one too, standing silent in the storm, not even able to slap one frozen hand against another. . . . But they kept moving somehow. . . . Otherwise, there was nothing.”
In Everett Dick’s The Sod-House Frontier, the author writes, “Of all these indications of displeasure on the part of nature, perhaps the most trying were the blizzards. Too often man and beast were poorly prepared to parry winter’s icy thrusts.” He continues: “Many were the men who had different parts of their anatomy frozen at one time or another as they pursued the tasks which obliged them to take long journeys to the mill, to town, or after fuel. Not infrequently settlers were frozen when caught out in these terrible frigid outbursts of Mother Nature. When caught in blizzards, men have been known, in their efforts to preserve their lives, to kill their horses, rip them open and crawl into their vitals so as to have the warmth of the animal’s intestines.”
Bess Streeter Aldrich, in her famous book A Lantern in Her Hand, writes, “The winter seemed nothing but snow and cold, trouble and misery. Only the children were happy. Too young to sense the desperate straits of the family, they played joyfully through the winter.”
In My Ántonia Willa Cather describes the snow of a big storm in this way: “The snow did not fall this time, it simply spilled out of heaven, like thousands of feather-beds being emptied.” She writes how the men had to shovel until noon to reach the barn—and the snow was still falling. Imagine burying the dead during the frozen winter months: “Mr. Shimerda lay dead in the barn four days, and on the fifth they buried him. All day Friday Jelinek was off with Ambrosch digging the grave, chopping out the frozen earth with old axes. . . . Jake and Jelinek went ahead on horseback to cut the body loose from the pool of blood in which it was frozen fast to the ground.”
Book after book, the tale of life during winter on the Plains is about survival. It’s about bleakness and yet beauty. It’s about the spirit of those who carried on despite the bitter cold or the mountains of snow or the hunger. One can see why people of the Great Plains are resolute and hardworking. If their ancestors had not been, there would be no farms nor ranches nor settlements on this unforgiving land. I’m grateful to all of them, not just for carrying on but for inspiring all the writers who have made the winters of the Plains fodder for beautiful stories.