c. 1875 | Walnut Grove, MN

Grim Reaping

Laura Ingalls Wilder versus the grasshoppers.

The light was queer. It was not like the changed light before a storm. The air did not press down as it did before a storm. Laura was frightened, she did not know why.

She ran outdoors, where Pa stood looking up at the sky. Ma and Mary came out too, and Pa asked, “What do you make of that, Caroline?”

A cloud was over the sun. It was not like any cloud they had ever seen before. It was a cloud of something like snowflakes, but they were larger than snowflakes, and thin and glittering. Light shone through each flickering particle.

There was no wind. The grasses were still and the hot air did not stir, but the edge of the cloud came on across the sky faster than wind. The hair stood up on Jack’s neck. All at once he made a frightful sound up at that cloud, a growl and a whine.

Plunk! Something hit Laura’s head and fell to the ground. She looked down and saw the largest grasshopper she had ever seen.Then huge brown grasshoppers were hitting the ground all around her, hitting her head and her face and her arms. They came thudding down like hail.

The cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hailstorm.

Laura tried to beat them off. Their claws clung to her skin and her dress. They looked at her with bulging eyes, turning their heads this way and that. Mary ran screaming into the house. Grasshoppers covered the ground, there was not one bare bit to step on. Laura had to step on grasshoppers and they smashed squirming and slimy under her feet.

Ma was slamming the windows shut, all around the house. Pa came and stood just inside the front door, looking out. Laura and Jack stood close beside him. Grasshoppers beat down from the sky and swarmed thick over the ground. Their long wings were folded and their strong legs took them hopping everywhere. The air whirred and the roof went on sounding like a roof in a hailstorm.

Then Laura heard another sound, one big sound made of tiny nips and snips and gnawings. “The wheat!” Pa shouted. He dashed out the back door and ran toward the wheat field.

The grasshoppers were eating. You could not hear one grasshopper eat, unless you listened very carefully while you held him and fed him grass. Millions and millions of grasshoppers were eating now. You could hear the millions of jaws biting and chewing.

Pa came running back to the stable. Through the window Laura saw him hitching Sam and David to the wagon. He began pitching old, dirty hay from the manure pile into the wagon as fast as he could. Ma ran out, took the other pitchfork, and helped him. Then he drove away to the wheat field and Ma followed the wagon.

Pa drove around the field, throwing out little piles of stuff as he went. Ma stooped over one, then a thread of smoke rose from it and spread. Ma lit pile after pile. Laura watched till a smudge of smoke hid the field and Ma and Pa and the wagon.

Grasshoppers were still falling from the sky. The light was still dim because grasshoppers covered the sun.

Ma came back to the house, and in the closed lean-to she took off her dress and her petticoats and killed the grasshoppers she shook out of them. She had lit fires all around the wheat field. Perhaps smoke would keep the grasshoppers from eating the wheat.

Ma and Mary and Laura were quiet in the shut, smothery house. Carrie was so little that she cried, even in Ma’s arms. She cried herself to sleep. Through the walls came the sound of grasshoppers eating.

The darkness went away. The sun shone again. All over the ground was a crawling, hopping mass of grasshoppers. They were eating all the soft, short grass off the knoll. The tall prairie grasses swayed and bent and fell.

“Oh, look,” Laura said, low, at the window.

They were eating the willow tops. The willows’ leaves were thin and bare twigs stuck out. Then whole branches were bare and knobby with masses of grasshoppers.

“I don’t want to look anymore,” Mary said, and she went away from the window. Laura did not want to look anymore either, but she could not stop looking.

The hens were funny. The two hens and their gawky pullets were eating grasshoppers with all their might. They were used to stretching their necks out low and running fast after grasshoppers and not catching them. Every time they stretched out now, they got a grasshopper right then. They were surprised. They kept stretching out their necks and trying to run in all directions at once.

“Well, we won’t have to buy feed for the hens,” said Ma. “There’s no great loss without some gain.”

The green garden rows were wilting down. The potatoes, the carrots, the beets and beans were being eaten away. The long leaves were eaten off the cornstalks, and the tassels, and the ears of young corn in their green husks fell covered with grasshoppers.

There was nothing anybody could do about it. 


Laura Ingalls Wilder

From On the Banks of Plum Creek. Wilder became a schoolteacher in the Dakota Territory at the age of fifteen in 1882 and began her writing career in 1910 as the poultry columnist for the St. Louis Star Farmer. Visiting her journalist and novelist daughter in San Francisco in 1915, she wrote that she wanted “to do a little writing” with her “to get the hang of it a little better so I can write something perhaps I can sell.” Wilder published the first of her nine “Little House” novels in 1932 at the age of sixty-five.