Congratulations to the Atlantic for addressing head on the wimpiness revealed during the recent deep freeze. “School Wasn’t Cancelled for Bad Weather in 1882,” reads the headline of Eleanor Barkhorn’s look at one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. Two of the students in the cold brutal winter story in question, Martha and Charlie, were even marked tardy, for arriving three minutes late after a mile-long slog through the snow. “Martha didn’t throw a Cher-in-Clueless-style fit at being marked tardy,” Barkhorn writes. “She simply apologized.”
But shouldn’t there be more direct evidence of how winter life was lived back in the day? Stories that rely not only on fiction or grandparental accounts of five-mile uphill treks to and from school? As it happens, the excellent Samuel Hynes, in his memoir The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War (2003), fills this need, as he describes the coldest winter ever in Minnesota, when he was 11:
The morning of the coldest day the temperature was thirty-six below, but the routine was just the same—same wake-up poem, same jolly radio, same oatmeal, same open oven door. Same school. “Wrap up warm!” said Nellie [his stepmother], who had walked backward two miles to school in a blizzard when she was a kid, and I was out the door, into bright air so cold that it hurt when I breathed in, to walk my usual route up alleys and through vacant lots and over fences to school, rubbing my cheeks and nose to keep them from freezing, pinching my ears—can I still feel that?—the scarf across my face first damp from my steaming breath and then frozen to rime frost, toes cold in my boots, body clenched like a fist against the searching cold, thinking “This is me on a brave adventure, nobody has ever walked to school on such a cold day before,” thinking “I’m Admiral Byrd!” and feeling heroic, defying winter.
At supper that night he heard Coldest Day stories. They included reports of a 71-year-old man who froze to death beneath a river bridge and a teenage girl found dead in a field near her home after leaving a party a midnight the previous night. “Hearing those tales, I felt even more heroic,” Hynes writes. “I had survived a day’s weather that had killed an old man and a girl.”
But in fact the coldest day had been like any other winter day. None of the kids I knew had stayed home from school, or been driven there; and none of them had been frostbitten. We did our lessons, we played on the playground at recess, we walked home.
And Hynes also had a paper route to tend to.