Remember that yellow novelty book, The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook? You may have gotten it or given it as a gift years ago, or at least picked it up off a bookstore display table, thumbed through it, read some of it aloud to a companion. How to land a plane. How to deliver a baby in the back of a cab. How to fend off a shark. How to make fire without matches. How to treat frostbite.
There’s a board game version, too. If I knew the Ingallses well enough to send them a Christmas gift, I’d be tempted to send them that. They could play it around the table in the evenings when the Youth’s Companion and Pioneer Press papers run out. But I already know them well enough to know that it would tax their senses of humor. It would probably deplete a comedian troupe’s collective stores of humor if the troupe were going through this long winter.
On the first day back to school, Laura’s classmates play a version of the game.
“What would you do if you were caught in a blizzard, Mary?” Minnie Johnson was asking.
“I guess I would just keep on walking. You wouldn’t freeze if you kept on walking,” Mary answered.
“But you’d tire yourself out. You’d get so tired you’d die,” said Minnie.
“Well, what would you do?” Mary Power asked her.
“I’d dig into a snowbank and let the snow cover me up. I don’t think you’d freeze to death in a snowbank. Would you, Laura?”
“I don’t know,” Laura said.
“Well, what would you do, Laura, if you got caught in a blizzard?” Minnie insisted.
“I wouldn’t get caught,” Laura answered. She did not like to think about it.
The Ingallses don’t need the worst-case scenario board game. They’re already playing it. How to flavor food when the butter runs out. How to heat a home when the coal runs out. How to make evening light when the kerosene runs out. What to eat when the flour runs out. How to haul hay when one of your horses just can’t even.
Pa twists hay into fuel. Ma turns axle grease, a button and a bit of cloth into a wee lamp that people today would probably buy on Etsy. When it looks like there might be no Christmas, Laura overcomes a resentful moment and decides to give things she’s been making for herself to her sisters and Ma instead.
These things are all hard. But they make do. There’s a different kind of hard: the mental whiplash of believing one thing and having it overturned.
The children are happy to be back in school. It was good to see the town alive again and to know that again all the weekdays would be school days. That lasted one day, replaced by the news that there would be no more school until the train came through.
The train might make it through today. Oh, no! Storm clouds on the horizon! There will be no train today. There will be no train tomorrow. Spoiler alert: There will be no train for a long, long time.
So let’s talk about the Ingallses managing to make do, and their hope and faith in that train, or their putting a good face on it in front of the children. Let’s talk about how you make do and adapt and when your own supplies run out.
Bonus thoughts, with activities
1. Pa and Laura in the summer heat, working together to make hay while the sun shines … It seems like a long time ago. Now here they are, Pa and Laura in the winter cold, working together to make heat. It kind of breaks my heart. (And teaches a writing lesson about foreshadowing and narrative arcs.) As a girl, I turned this part of the story into play. I walked up the hill at the end of my neighborhood, to the marshy place where cattails grew. I broke off their dried leaves and tried to twist them into fuel rods like Pa’s. I couldn’t get the tucking part right. It didn’t occur to me to ask my resourceful dad to play Pa’s part and show me how.
Activity: Brainstorm what you’d do if your home ran out of heat, or food, or WiFi.
2. I may or may not have happily eaten some baked potatoes with nothing but salt this week. Pa’s right about salt bringing out the flavor. (And his folksy exclamations crack me up. “By George! That dinner looks good! I could eat a raw bear without salt!”)
Activity: Look in your fridge and pantry. Mentally eliminate all the foods in frequent rotation. What would you live on if they were gone and the banker had bought all the good stuff left in your supermarket? Make a meal of it. Let the kids help with the equivalent of grinding wheat in your coffee mill.
3. My favorite part this week? The letter writing. There’s a deadline; the mail carrier is leaving in the morning. The family gathers around as Ma writes a letter back to the aunts and uncles and cousins in Wisconsin. Tell them this. Tell them that, the girls urge her. It reminds me of the Waltons gathered around their radio.
So she brought the letter to the tablecloth under the lamp, and after she thawed the ink bottle they all sat around the table thinking of last things to say while Ma wrote them down with her little red pen that had a mother-of-pearl handle shaped like a feather. When her neat, clear writing filled the paper she turned it and filled it again crosswise. On the other side of the paper she did the same thing so that every inch of paper held all the words that it possibly could.
It seems the most animated, most united, most alive-in-the-moment moment for the family. I love Ma’s editing, when Laura dictates “great-great-great-grand kittens,” that “‘descendants’ takes less space,” and her joke that the letter might be overweight because of all the words. I love the description of the pen. And I love realizing something I didn’t see in my childhood reading: that Laura was not the first Ingalls to be a writer.
Activity: Think of distant family you haven’t seen in a while. Write them a letter. If you have kids at home, choose family they will remember, and ask them what to put into it. If you have the extravagance of more than one sheet of paper, let everyone write something. Believe that the memories of good times together are more precious than that pen. Believe that, whatever happens with the trains, you will see them again.
Thanks for being here, being your own little button lamp in our communal winter.
Feb. 3 — “Make Hay While the Sun Shines” through “Indian Warning”
Feb. 10 — “Settled in Town” through “We’ll Weather the Blast”
Feb. 17 — “One Bright Day” through “Where There’s a Will”
Feb. 24 — “Antelope!” through “Breathing Spell”
March 3 — “For Daily Bread” through “Christmas in May”