Sunday, February 22, 2015


The daughter’s dog ran off last night. He slipped through a gate left ajar for a moment and vanished. ‘Atticus’ is all Border Collie: he’ll attempt to herd anything that moves and only ponders consequences about a half second before they impact him.

We, along with most of the eastern United States, happened to be under an emergency winter weather warning. Roads were glazed with nearly 2 inches of solid ice, snow pellets were falling and the 13 degree temp was not forecast to rise much for days. Search efforts were called off near midnight since it was too hazardous to drive and my daughter was risking frostbite from slogging through ditches and alleyways.

This morning, I printed flyers, suited up in hiking boots and every woolen garment I could find, pointed my SUV down our long 20-per-cent-grade driveway and jitterbugged toward the stone ‘goal’ posts at the bottom of the hill. Since we were under emergency conditions, I figured I didn’t need to mind the red light at the end of our road. By the time I drove/slid the 3 miles to my daughter’s house, Atticus had managed to find his way home. He was cold, muddy, hungry and was the most embarrassed dog I’ve ever seen.

That’s my ‘Winter of 2015’ story.
Minnesota Historical Society

In October of 1880, a little family named Ingalls in DeSmet, South Dakota, was slammed by a three-day blizzard. Over the next seven months, they were ravaged by dozens of frigid whiteouts. Their cattle’s heads and legs froze to the ground. They ran out of food and were reduced to grinding wheat grains in a coffee mill to make crude bread. They ran out of firewood and kerosene. ‘Pa’ Ingalls braided hay into sticks to burn in the stove. The second oldest daughter, Laura, would later recount that she woke to find “ice crackled on the quilt where leaking rain had fallen.”

The family shivered, sang hymns and tried their best to keep spirits up. No trains would reach their town until the following May. With the food and supplies it brought, they were finally able to celebrate Christmas.

This lighthearted cover design belies the
hardship suffered by the Ingalls
family during the long brutal winter.
In her later years, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote an enchanting series of books based on her youth on the frontier. It was “The Long Winter” that my fourth grade teacher read aloud to my class, igniting in me a love for the pioneer’s life. I could feel the terror and the chill to my bones as Laura and her schoolmates became lost in blinding snow…until they stumbled miraculously into the side of a house. My belly rumbled as Ma Ingalls gave thanks and passed around slices of brown bread for one more meager meal.

Meteorologists have confirmed through records that the merciless winter of 1880-81 was just as Laura described it, down to the dates.

I want to be that kind of writer–who captures details that make readers shiver, who brands a story into their minds, who encourages young ones to grow up and be writers too. That caliber of writing is born of inspiration in the face of extreme hardship. I’m working on that one.

I suggested to Atticus this morning that he might want to chronicle his twelve-hour ordeal in the icy wilds of middle Tennessee. He shuddered and averted his eyes as if to say, I’ve seen things. Things civilized dogs ought not to see…

All the best,


Keep up with Vonn:

P.S.  A tale of winter and mystery: NOAH RAINS. Something is out there in the snow, and it will change Ephraim Teller's life forever.


  1. Now THAT is a hard winter. We had a bad one in Colorado one year. Constant snow, no power. So the neighbors piled in with us. We fired up the woodburner and had a fine time visiting and laughing, so much so that when the power came back we turned everything off and continued what we were doing without it.

    I'm glad Atticus came home safely.

    1. Maybe no one's heads froze to the ground but yours is a great winter memory nonetheless! Thanks, Frank. Always good to hear from you.

  2. Vonn,

    Great writing and really very interestingly put. Glad the dog came back. Eventually too, the winter will pass.

  3. Thanks so much, Charlie! I can't wait for spring. There were a couple of days last week when it was colder in Nashville than in Alaska!

  4. Vonn, that last line cracked me up. Poor Atticus! I bet he doesn't venture out so easily the next time in the cold. I have an interesting theory about elementary-middle school aged kids. So many books, such as The Little House books that are written for that age group can't possibly have the impact when a kid reads them by themselves as they do when an adult reads it to them. For one thing--the things that are described are so foreign to them that they can't wrap their brains around it fully--but when an adult takes time to read to them (yes, even if they are old enough to read it for themselves) there's something about sharing that reading experience with someone else, being able to talk about it and ask questions that they might be wondering, and having an adult to explain things--that turn that particular read into something so memorable and exciting that it's never forgotten. I don't believe that it's until late middle school/high school when kids truly begin to understand subtleties in writing--I remember so clearly when my son came home, enthralled by THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, and (truly understanding the horror of it because of class discussions/teacher interaction) from that point on, truly loved reading--that story, I believe, was the "key"--and for my daughter it was TO BUILD A FIRE by Jack London.

    As a side note, I read to my kids until they were embarrassed to let anyone know it--but guess what? It was a time they looked forward to each and every night--no matter what else we had going on--it was time spent together in a shared experience. There's nothing like it, and I can understand why "back in the day" people used to gather in the evenings and someone read.

    When we read The Little House books as adults, we can imagine how Ma must have felt, and Pa, too--something that, as a child, we can't fully realize. I am like you--I want to be a writer that makes the reader envision every detail and put them right there in the story. Great post, as always. I hope winter is over SOON for all of us!

  5. That's an astute observation, Cheryl. As a matter of fact, I can still hear my English teacher, in her soft Southern voice, reading to the class. It was one of the few times we were all completely quiet and paying attention!

    I love reading to children and I always throw in crazy voices for all the characters–British cows, Bronx roosters, hillbilly horses, you name it.

    Just wait until you have grandchildren to read to!

  6. My teacher used to read us Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan stories. My love of history is due to growing up around elders and listening to their stories.
    To have your readers invested in your stories is gold, and I know you will achieve your goal,

    I'm glad your daughters dog made it home safe. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

    1. What you say is true. There's just something about oral history shared by elders that sticks with a kid. Thanks for your comments.

  7. Inspiring stories all around. Pass it on!

    1. Hey, Tom! Thanks for stopping by. If you're like me, have so many ideas queued up in my head, I can't even find time to write them all.

  8. So glad the dog made it home!! and I loved the Little House books too, but The Long Winter was not a fave. I loved Silver Lake and Happy Golden Years best.

  9. Thanks, Meg. THE LONG WINTER was definitely the darkest of Wilder's books. By the way, it included the first mention of Almanzo, whom Laura would later marry.