My book today is The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin.

I picked this book up some time last year and started it (got about a chapter in) but never finished it. So I re-read the whole thing this week. The title of this blog post pulls from the children’s book The Long Winter where Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about living through the “Snow Winter” of 1880. Many of Wilder’s descriptions are spot on, but while that winter was recognized as epic, it would not be as brutal as the blizzard that followed 8 years later.

The Children’s Blizzard is about one of the most horrifying blizzards to ever hit the Great Plains region. On January 12, 1888 a blizzard hit the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota with such ferocity that it left hundreds dead in its wake. The majority of the dead were children, who as the blizzard hit, fled their flimsy  country schoolhouses for shelter and never made it home. The book interweaves the stories of immigrants, many Norwegian,  Swiss-German Mennonites, and poor Americans from the east. Laskin does a remarkable job resurrecting the stories of these immigrants, given that few left behind written sources. They came from Europe looking for the “free land” that they had heard about in the American Midwest, and quickly settled into a hardscrabble life. Added to the cast of the book are the Signal Corps meteorologists (before the National Weather Service, the weather was forecast by the Army– after this blizzard and another epic one that wrecked the NYC area, the government relieved the Army of their duty and created the National Weather Office.)  Like many government offices, the Signal Corps was beset with petty infighting and stupidity that helped contribute to the disaster.

Laskin vividly describes the weather conditions that lead up to the blizzard- that morning  was a warm day, which led many farmers to leave the house to try to complete chores before the next storm.  Children left for school, often without mittens, a hat, or a decent coat, rejoicing in the warmth. The blizzard bore down on them when they were in their plain, poorly constructed schoolhouses. Eyewitnesses described that it came with a roar- and that when one looked up, a black cloud approached with a wall of white– like an oncoming sandstorm only with snow so fine  and driven so hard by the wind that it tore the skin off your face if it was uncovered.The author also describes the freezing process, hypothermia, and how the people caught outside died. As the blizzard howled through the area, the temperature, so mild earlier in the day, dropped to 40 below.

The most gripping stories of course, are of  the children and their families. The orphaned girl who no one cared for who tried to fight the blizzard to make her way back to her home who somehow, miraculously, survived despite collapsing  in the middle of the storm. The Mennonite boys who refused to leave each other, even as it becomes evident that disaster was upon them. The schoolteacher who saved her students by tying them together so they would not get lost during the walk home, and then by finding refuge in a haystack. The Norwegian farmer, whose strong, sensible wife goes out into the maelstrom to save him and their cow.  The father who digs a hole for his son in a snowbank, lays the family dog on top of the boy and himself on top of both of them. When the blizzard ends, he is dead, but the dog manages to get the boy (who lives) to safety.  The stories are numerous–filled with bravery and are heartbreaking. These were people who were so poor that they lived in houses constructed of sod and tar paper,  who burned hay instead of coal, and who were willing to risk their life for their livestock–because a cow, a horse, or pig could be the difference between making it or financial ruin.

The land was free. So the immigrants who settled the harshest parts of the Midwest were told. But it wasn’t. It exacted a horrible toll of death and hardship. The prairie, which seemed to fertile, began to empty out in the beginnings of the 20th century. Those who survived faced the horror of the Dust Bowl years, which hastened the emptying out. Now, as Laskin points out the prairie is being reclaimed by those who were indigenous to it, Native peoples and buffalo– populations of both groups are now the highest in a hundred and thirty years.

This book serves as many things, first of all as a history of the Great Plains, but also (obviously) as a cautionary tale. Men thought they could tame the prairie, but they were wrong. The infighting among the Signal Corps (who forecasted the weather and who blew it in terms of notifying anyone) cost lives. We like to think that weather cannot inflict such disaster on us anymore, but most recently, Hurricane Katrina has shown us what happens when we think we are greater than Mother Nature.  Finally, the book raises one last (although mostly inferred) point– the prairies were not free. Thousands of animals, people  and an entire culture and way of life were slaughtered so that white Europeans and Americans could take advantage of all this “good, free,  land” in the name of Manifest Destiny. And the prairies exacted a horrible, heartrending revenge on those who believed they could tame it.

A sobering read, but engaging. The author’s writing style is highly accessible.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C