Monday, July 13, 2009

The Children's Blizzard

The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin
HarperCollins, November 2004
hardcover, 307 pages
ISBN-13: 9780060520755
very highly recommended, reread

Synopsis from cover:
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.
My thoughts:

The Children's Blizzard is another one of my favorite non-fiction books. Like Isaac's Storm, it's also another book for weather geeks. This time the weather disaster is the January 12, 1888 blizzard that hit the Great Plains. Since this occurred just 12 years before the Galveston Hurricane, there was present in the national Weather Service infighting, jealousy, and control of information, and another disaster happened without any clear warning sent to the public. Arguably, in this case, even if the storm had been correctly predicted and the information passed on, very few of the people in the vast region the storm hit would have received any notification or warning. Laskin includes information about the immigrants in the region and history on the government's weather service. I thought Laskin, another good writer, did a commendable job in setting the tone and the historical context while leading up to the blizzard and its aftermath.

One of the reasons The Children's Blizzard is a favorite of mine is that I basically know the area of the country in which the blizzard occurred. I recognize the names of towns and can place them not only on a map but can "see" the land surrounding them. My paternal grandparents were Swedish settlers in Nebraska. I also know how quickly the weather can change in the area. I went to college in the Great Plains and vividly recall one day in early Spring where we woke up to warm, short sleeved shirt and shorts weather. Early in the afternoon the weather suddenly began to change, temperatures quickly dropped and we had a huge blizzard that night. Even today you hear stories about motorists thoughtlessly driving into a blizzard and getting stranded in their vehicles. With all our advances in weather forecasting and weather radar, people still need to understand that a natural disaster can occur. They need to take warnings seriously and have a healthy respect for how quickly weather can change rather than assigning blame every where but at themselves. Reread, Very Highly Recommended - one of the best


On January 12, 1888, a blizzard broke over the center of the North American continent. Out of nowhere, a soot gray cloud appeared over the northwest horizon. The air grew still for a long, eerie measure, then the sky began to roar and a wall of ice dust blasted the prairie. opening

Chance is always a silent partner in disaster. Bad luck, bad timing, the wrong choice at a crucial moment, and the door is inexorably shut and barred. The tragedy of the January 12 blizzard was that the bad timing extended across a region and cut through the shared experiences of an entire population. The storm hit the most thickly settled sections of Nebraska and Dakota Territory at the worst possible moment-late in the morning or early in the afternoon on the first mild day in several weeks, a day when children had raced to school with no coats or gloves and farmers were far from home doing chores they had put off during the long siege of cold. pg. 2

One of the many tragedies of that day was the failure of the weather forecasters, a failure compounded of faulty science, primitive technology, human error, narrow-mindedness, and sheer ignorance. America in 1888 had the benefit of an established, well-funded, nationwide weather service attached to the Army and headed by a charismatic general-yet the top priority on any given day was not weather, but political infighting. Forecasters-"indications officers," as they were styled then-insisted their forecasts were correct 83.7 percent of the time for the next twenty-four hours, but they were forbidden to use the word tornado in any prediction; they believed that America's major coastal cities were immune to hurricanes; they relied more on geometry and cartography than on physics in tracking storms; they lacked the means and, for the most part, the desire to pursue meteorological research. pg. 4

Many of the "great storms and waves of intense heat or intense cold" escaped them altogether-or were mentioned in their daily "indications" too late, too vaguely, too timidly to do anyone any good. When it came to "great disasters," they knew far less than they thought knew. pg. 5

The blizzard of January 12, 1888, known as "the Schoolchildren's Blizzard" because so many of the victims were children caught out on their way home from school, became a marker in the lives of the settlers, the watershed event that separated before and after. The number of deaths-estimated at between 250 and 500 -was small compared to that of the Johnstown Flood that wiped out an entire industrial town in western Pennsylvania the following year or the Galveston hurricane of 1900 that left more than eight thousand dead. But it was traumatic enough that it left an indelible bruise on the consciousness of the region. The pioneers were by and large a taciturn lot, reserved and sober Germans and Scandinavians who rarely put their thoughts or feelings down on paper, and when they did avoided hyperbole at all costs. Yet their accounts of the blizzard of 1888 are shot through with amazement, awe, disbelief. pg. 6-7

What follows is the story of this storm and some of the individuals whose lives were forever changed by it. Parents who lost children. Children who lost parents. Fathers who died with their coats and their arms wrapped around their sons. Sisters who lay side by side with their faces frozen to the ground. Teachers who locked the schoolhouse doors to keep their students safe inside or led them to shelter-or to death-when the roofs blew off their one-room schoolhouses. Here, too, is the story of the Army officer paid by his government to predict the evolution of the storm and warn people of its approach. In a sense it is a book about multiple and often fatal collisions - collisions between ordinary people going about their daily lives and the immense unfathomable disturbances of weather. pg. 7

Today a "surprise" storm that killed over two hundred people would instigate a fierce outcry in the press, vigorous official hand-wringing, and a flood of reports by every government agency remotely involved, starting with the National Weather Service. But in the Gilded Age, blame for the suffering attendant on an act of God was left unassigned. Hardly anyone believed that government agencies had either the expertise or the obligation to forestall disaster... pg. 254


Unknown said...

I have never heard of this book before, but it does sound like my sort of thing - is it really depressing though?

Lori L said...

Well... yes, it probably is depressing in the end if only because it was a horrible natural disaster. It's called The Children's Blizzard because many of the people who died were school children.

Gwendolyn B. said...

This is one of my favorites, too. The author does a heartbreakingly excellent job of placing the reader right in the middle the storm. Yes, it is incredibly sad. But I think it would be sadder still for these tragedies to pass without being noted. I find it encouraging to learn what human beings have endured and withstood through the ages. Have you read THE INDIFFERENT STARS ABOVE by Daniel James Brown? It's a new book about the Donner Party and is definitely of the same caliber as this book.

Lori L said...

Gwendolyn, I'll have to look up The Indifferent Stars Above and see if I've read it. If it's very new, probably not. We lived in Reno, NV, for several years (most were pre-blog) and I read a lot of books about the Donner Party, as well as other books on the local history of the area. (I always tend to read books about any new area we move to.) There was some anthropological research and excavation being done on the Donner camp site(s) when we lived there and a lot of new information was discovered.

Anonymous said...

I picked this up as a bargain book at B&N this summer(pre-moratorium). It didn't make it into the vacay bag but I look forward to reading it this fall.
Isaacs Storm DID make it into the vacay bag!!! I got it from the library.

Lori L said...

You will enjoy Isaac's Storm, Dana. It's heart breaking, though.

joemmama said...

WOW! This looks like an excellent story. Will have to add it to my list. Thanks for the great review!