Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"The Children's Blizzard": A Review

After reading "To Kill a Mockingbird," I was flummoxed about what to read next. I felt I didn't want to leave Maycomb county. I considered reading another book with a racial theme, such as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but then felt that the themes would be too similar yet the books would be disappointing. I had to read something very different.

So, I read (for the second time) "The Children's Blizzard" by David Laskin. My husband first discovered this book after reading a book review by George Will, available at The Washington Post.

"In The Children's Blizzard, David Laskin deploys historical fact of the finest grain to tell the story of a monstrous blizzard that caught the settlers of the Great Plains utterly by surprise. Using the storm as a lens, Laskin captures the brutal, heartbreaking folly of this chapter in America's history, and along the way delves into the freakish physics of extreme cold. This is a book best read with a fire roaring in the hearth and a blanket and box of tissues near at hand."
--Erik Larson, author of Isaac's Storm and The Devil in the White City

If one has read "The Long Winter" by Laura Ingalls Wilder, one is familiar with the seemingly unending blizzards of the winter of 1880-81. In contrast, the blizzard of January 12, 1888 was unprecedented in its sudden violence. Overnight, the temperature had risen about 40 degrees across the Great Plains: people rejoiced at the seeming early spring thaw! Schoolchildren walked to their one-room schoolhouses in shirtsleeves, without coats, hats, or gloves because of the comparatively balmy weather. This storm came to be known as the children's blizzard because such a great number of children died trying to walk the one mile, half mile, or few hundred yards home from their school houses. People died mere feet from their front doors for lack of being able to see anything but white or hear anything but the wind.

When the storm hit, the front subtracted 18 degrees Fahrenheit in three minutes. In an instant, the sky began to roar and a wall of ice dust blasted every living thing, snow as fine as ground flour suffocating all creatures who must breathe to live. The wind gales increased and the temperatures kept dropping till they reached 40 below zero windchill.

Laskin's book is a fascinating interweaving of genealogical, meteorological, and medical research. I appreciate that the three threads are weaved throughout because, honestly, I couldn't track the meteorological explanations (and all the dramatic politics of early meteorological organizations!) for very long. How weather happens remains a mystery to me, but that is due to the limits of my brain, not for lack of Laskin explaining in detail. He also explains carefully how extreme cold damages and kills a person--but also how a person can survive. How can a person stay outside in temperatures 40 below zero overnight and live?! I walked from my warm van to the warm restaurant the other evening in temperatures about 35 and felt highly uncomfortable, wanting my few seconds of exposure to end quickly.

As the child of a trained genealogist, I have so much appreciation for the research the author has done. He has read thousands of newspaper articles resulting from this blizzard, then extended back the genealogical records of the people of whom he read. In this way, Laskin tells us the immigration stories of many characters: we know how they came to be on the prairie and have glimpses of their personalities, thus making the reports of their horrific demise or dramatic survival that much more emotional.

Whether one prefers the genealogical, meteorological, or medical information best (won't it be the genealogical?), one won't have to wait long before the author shifts, bobs, and weaves in one of the other topics. I appreciated the changing of pace.

Reading this account will certainly make anyone aghast at how the settlers of their prairies survived any hardships at all, let alone the blizzard of 1888. I sit stunned when I ponder the comparison of technology and the Great Plains themselves between 1888 and 1988. Knowing history fosters gratitude.

(Note: There is also a children's book about this same blizzard called "Blizzard! The Storm that Changed America" by Jim Murphy.)


  1. I am enjoying your book reviews, Katherine. I checked out Ida Elisabeth but haven't gotten far as I've been engrossed in Catherine of Siena!

    I read The Children's Blizzard, too. It was fascinating reading with my intimate knowledge of Laura's Long Winter. ;-) Another interesting weather book you might enjoy is Isaac's Storm which is about the hurricane that devastated Galveston, TX, when weather forecasting was in its infancy, as in The Children's Blizzard.

  2. I love these reviews Katherine! I'm always wanting to read a good fiction book, but twaddle is so prevalent, it can be hard to cipher the good ones out sometimes. I am going to put this one on hold, hopefully the library has it.