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Solitary confinement

This is an article by our regular columnist, Anne Mayer (86). She recalls how reading “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, based in the Midwest, has helped her during the difficult time of lockdown.

These are extraordinary times and we are all suffering under lockdown. Some are locked up in small spaces with too many people and others are enduring solitary confinement, albeit in their own homes. Whatever our individual circumstances, we are having to reach deep inside for qualities of self-reliance which may be very new and difficult. While fighting off my own tendencies of anxiety and a degree of self-pity, I suddenly remembered my favourite series of books, which I read as a child and re-read many times to my own daughters. They are written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who lived in America’s Midwest for her entire long life (1867-1957). Laura was one of five children born to Charles and Caroline Ingalls. Her only brother died as an infant but the four girls survived what can only be described as a harsh and often brutal upbringing. Charles (1836-1902) was a hunter-trapper, farmer and sometimes carpenter. Although born in New York, he moved with his new wife to Wisconsin in America’s Midwest, which was then the frontier. Every time he could see a light from another house, it was time to move again and the family moved constantly until they finally ended up in South Dakota. Each time they built a rudimentary house, or cabin more likely, on land that was not rightfully theirs and scratched a living. Caroline gave birth to all five children in primitive conditions and home schooled them. When they finally told their husband/father they could move no more, he opened a dry goods (hardware) store in the small town but could not sustain the business for more than a couple of years. The first winter they spent in De Smet, South Dakota was the hardest anybody could ever remember. In the eighth of the nine books, written with perfect recall by Laura when she was in her 80’s, and called “The Long Winter”, she writes vividly of living through five months of blizzards so fierce that they could not even prise open the door. The supply train could not get through and they were slowly starving to death. There were inches of ice on the inside of the windows and the privy was outside. In the tiny house they somehow sustained each other’s spirits. The eldest daughter, Mary, had had some illness along the way which left her blind, so that was an added worry. In the final chapter of “The Long Winter” it is mid-May and the train finally arrives at the small station, greeted by every single resident, and bearing long-rotted Christmas turkeys and welcome Christmas presents. When we got to that chapter, my three daughters and I always had a good cry. Why do I write of this now? Speaking personally, my solitary confinement is one of comfort, heat and light, food to eat and communication with the outside world by telephone, computer and social media. It is irritating not to be able to get a haircut, or visit the dentist or physio, or stroll through the shops, but it doesn’t compare with real hardship. When I occasionally wonder if I have what it takes to get through this, it is a great comfort to remember plucky Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose whole life was lived with privation: hunger, cold, lack of books and educational materials, uncomfortable homemade clothes passed from daughter to daughter. She had a close and loving family and an enquiring mind, and actually ended up teaching school for three years before she married Alonzo Wilder in 1894. Laura, whom I have loved all my life, helps me put things in perspective and for that, and those wonderful books, I am eternally grateful.

Photo: by Carole Railton (copyright). “Each time they built a rudimentary house, or cabin more likely, on land that was not rightfully theirs and scratched a living.”

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