Thursday, July 15, 2010

My Favorite Reads: The Children's Blizzard

In My Favorite Reads each week I feature one of my favorite reads from the past. July is American History month.

The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin

Summary (from the publisher):
The gripping story of an epic prairie snowstorm that killed hundreds of newly arrived settlers and cast a shadow on the promise of the American frontier.

January 12, 1888, began as an unseasonably warm morning across Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Minnesota, the weather so mild that children walked to school without coats and gloves. But that afternoon, without warning, the atmosphere suddenly, violently changed. One moment the air was calm; the next the sky exploded in a raging chaos of horizontal snow and hurricane-force winds. Temperatures plunged as an unprecedented cold front ripped through the center of the continent.

By Friday morning, January 13, some five hundred people lay dead on the drifted prairie, many of them children who had perished on their way home from country schools. In a few terrifying hours, the hopes of the pioneers had been blasted by the bitter realities of their harsh environment. Recent immigrants from Germany, Norway, Denmark, and the Ukraine learned that their free homestead was not a paradise but a hard, unforgiving place governed by natural forces they neither understood nor controlled.

With the storm as its dramatic, heartbreaking focal point, The Children's Blizzard captures this pivotal moment in American history by tracing the stories of five families who were forever changed that day. Drawing on family interviews and memoirs, as well as hundreds of contemporary accounts, David Laskin creates an intimate picture of the men, women, and children who made choices they would regret as long as they lived. Here too is a meticulous account of the evolution of the storm and the vain struggle of government forecasters to track its progress.

The blizzard of January 12, 1888, is still remembered on the prairie. Children fled that day while their teachers screamed into the relentless roar. Husbands staggered into the blinding wind in search of wives. Fathers collapsed while trying to drag their children to safety. In telling the story of this meteorological catastrophe, the deadliest blizzard ever to hit the prairie states, David Laskin has produced a masterful portrait of a tragic crucible in the settlement of the American heartland.

Why I chose this book:
A sad, terrible story of a dreadful week in our history, which has been long forgotten. This is NOT the blizzard in Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, but a few years later (that was known as The Blue Blizzard). This is a riveting, well-researched, and heartbreaking tale of weather gone horribly wrong, and the preventable deaths of hundreds of children across several states in one of the worst natural disasters in American history.


Kathy said...

Ha! In your last paragraph you answered the question that was in my mind throughout most of your post (about Laura Ingalls, though I was thinking her childhood wouldn't have been as late as 1888).

Alyce said...

I'm glad you mentioned Laura too, because I was curious. This sounds like a very sad book, but I do enjoy it when nonfiction is well written, and it seems from your description that this one is.

Jeane said...

I never heard of this blizzard. It sounds horrifying! To think of all the devasatated families...

David Laskin said...

Thanks for the lovely blog -- much appreciated. A small correction: in "The Long Winter" Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about a series of blizzards that hit the midwest starting in October, 1880, and lasting well into the spring of 1881. The so-called "winter of blue snow" was the severe winter of 1886-87 that wiped out the cattle kingdom on the Great Plains. Again my thanks! David Laskin

Carin Siegfried said...

Hi Mr. Laskin! Thanks for commenting, and thanks so much for clearing up my goof. I was working on memory and not from the book, and I am bad with details. But I did want people to know it wasn't the "The Long Winter" winter as I think that's most people's first question. I really did love your book and I'm adding The Long Way Home to my TBR list! Happy writing!