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The Children's Blizzard (2004)

by David Laskin

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,6987710,416 (3.96)247
History. Nature. Nonfiction. HTML:

"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. . . . 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 The Devil in the White City

"Heartbreaking. . . . This account of the 1888 blizzard reads like a thriller."Entertainment Weekly

The gripping true 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 the next morning, 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. David Laskin has produced a masterful portrait of a tragic crucible in the settlement of the American heartland.

The P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

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Showing 1-5 of 77 (next | show all)
This is a non-fiction account of the blizzard of 1888, sometimes called the schoolhouse blizzard, because 280-300+ children died. While a good, factual account, there were a few chapters that were just mind-numbing boring to me: 68 pages on meteorology, fronts to be exact, and the description of the villages from whence the immigrants came (Norway-primarily). I would have been more interested in the people themselves, but do understand in a work of NF 80+ years later, hard to do! I found interesting the flag system of weather notification for when the telegraph was down (a good deal of the time!). Also, the actual process of the body breakdown when exposed to extreme temperatures was gruesome. Winds so fierce that it peeled the skin off faces in strips. This event took place on the Great Plains--specific to this book the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Native Americans were not mentioned. Might have to research how they managed. ( )
  Tess_W | May 5, 2024 |
I read this book just as Winter storm Elliott was blowing through the upper 48 in December 2022 and found numerous points that are still relevant today. In 1888 there was apparently not a very reliable weather forecasting system and since information was "telegraphed" and given to the area via flag signals. The forecasts at the time were under the control of the Army Signal Corps and it seems that they had qualified staffing shortages (does this sound familiar?) and those that gave the indications, not forecasts, had to wait for approval before notifications were sent out. AH, bureaucracy even over 100 years ago they were trying to cover their butts.

The blizzard hit the Great Plains suddenly on an unseasonably warm day so that many of the children were unprepared for the abrupt frigid temperatures. Teachers were undecided as to whether to keep the children at a school or send them home in the storm. Those that kept the children had roofs blown off, windows broken, and heating fuel exhausted while those children sent home often became lost in the whiteout and ended up either frozen to death or with severe frostbite.

Sometimes I laugh at the schools nowadays that shut down at the mere mention of a few inches of snow in our area but with this story I now see that discretion is the better part of valour. ( )
  cyderry | Dec 29, 2022 |
I applaud the effort it took to weave a story of multiple accounts of the devastating impact this blizzard had on the lives of those that experienced it into a full-length book. However, *all* the accounts are of white settlers - apparently, the blizzard sidestepped any and all of the native americans that lived in the region. It would have been nice to learn how the native experience compared...or, at the very least, have a paragraph or two about why native americans weren't included so it doesn't seem like they were omitted on purpose. ( )
  widdershinns | Dec 4, 2022 |
Reading on the recommendation of a friend. ( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
This well written account of the devastating and deadly storm that overran the Great Plains on January 12, 1888 chronicles the event with painstaking details. The author explains that the Army Signal Corps, following strict regulations, gave indications, not forecasts, of the weather. No National Weather Bureau existed, and no personal forecasts were allowed. He further explains how the frigid Canadian air collided with the warm gulf streams, and together created the massive front that inundated the plains. No warning was given for this sudden storm. Indeed, there was no way to get word to all the outlying farms even if a warning had been issued. The author goes on to explain how the pulverized snow and ice crystals coated clothes and skin and froze on eyelids and made even breathing difficult, if not impossible. Animals froze where they stood and suffocated. But worse by far was the fate of the children. The storm struck as many schools were closing for the day. Caught unawares, some teachers told their student to hurry home as quickly as possible. But many got lost on the way. Other teachers kept students in the the schools, only to have windows blown in, roofs blown off, and fuel exhausted. Because the day had started out warm for January, most of the kids were ill dressed for winter’s worst, without heavy coats, boots, scarfs, and mittens. The author writes about several of the doomed children, of the teacher who got her class to safety, of the people who sheltered as best as they could under hay stacks, and of those who survived the night, only to drop dead the next day. He also writes of the aftermath, of the amputations and the infections that claimed more lives. Reading like a novel but including the well researched details that explains the entirety of the blizzard, this nonfiction book is rich with the history of that time period in the Great Plains. Highly recommended. ( )
  Maydacat | Aug 6, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 77 (next | show all)
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
David Laskinprimary authorall editionscalculated
Schuck, MaryCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Steer, JudyCopyeditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer.

-Willa Cather, My Antonia
I often times think of those days; when it seemed possible that if a man seated on the gable peak of the old sod house by reaching quietly up when a flock of wild geese were flying he could easily reach up and catch them. But now where are our geese; way above the clouds; we can hear them but can't see them.

-Josephine Buchmillar Leber, Dakota pioneer
Dedication
To my own girls,

Emily, Sarah, and Alice,

who never cease to amaze me
First words
On January 12, 1888, a blizzard broke over the center of the North American continent.
Quotations
For the teachers at their wits’ end, the drays were a godsend. With transport and men to help, it was just a matter of getting the kids lined up and counted and then marched out the door and onto the drays. Again, Walter and the other monitors were called on to get their rows ready. The monitors must go last, after the other kids in their rows had filed out, one by one.     The air, when they finally got outside, was a shock. The air itself seemed to be streaming sideways in billows of grit. The snow felt like frozen sand against their eyelids and nostrils and lips. They couldn’t face into the wind or open their eyes, even for a second. The wind was blowing so hard that if you fell you couldn’t get up again. But to the kids it didn’t matter. Being out in a storm powerful enough to shut down school and bring ten men out from town to rescue them was a tremendous lark, and the children fairly poured outside and down the rickety schoolhouse steps, everybody shouting over the wind and shoving and edging sideways or backward toward the drays.     The wood of the drays was already rimed with snow and frozen solid as a rock, but for the first couple of minutes none of them felt the cold through their thin clothing. They piled on in masses of bodies and they had each other for warmth and a bit of shelter. There was much gleeful screaming as the schoolhouse emptied.     Walter took his responsibility as a monitor very seriously. Not until his entire row was accounted for, assembled, and marched outside would he even dream of leaving the school. So he was one of the last ones out.  The drays were nearly full by now – there was just room for him at the back of one. Walter scrambled up, the teachers did a final head count and shouted to the drivers that it was all right to start. The men snapped the reins and the five drays began creaking forward, one after the other in the storm, just as they had come out from town.     They hadn’t gone ten yards when Walter suddenly hopped off. He had just remembered his precious water bottle. He knew enough about weather to realize that the water inside the fragile perfume bottle would freeze as soon as the schoolhouse stove went cold and then the ice trapped inside would burst the bottle. Without thinking, Walter dropped from the dray and rushed up the wooden steps, down the hall to his room, grabbed the bottle from his desk, and ran back out.     Only then did his thoughts catch up with his body. The drays had been barely creeping when he jumped off. He had assumed that they would still be in front of the school when he got back – or at least close enough to run after and overtake. Ordinarily, he could see for miles out here. Surely someone would spot him standing there and stop the dray and wait for him.     But that’s not how it worked out. In the seconds that it took Walter to get his bottle, the drays had vanished without a trace – out of sight in the whiteout, out of earshot in the screaming wind. “The world is full of nothing” ran inanely through Walter’s mind. And now he experienced that little seizure that tightens around the heart when you first realize you’ve taken a step that you cannot reverse. Snow clogged his nostrils and coated his eyelashes. Snow blew down the neck of his coat and up his sleeves. The air was so full of powdered ice crystals and it was moving so fast that Walter had trouble filling his lungs. The exposed skin of his face and neck felt seared, as if the wind carried fire not ice. A cottony numbness spread through his body and brain. It did not occur to Walter that he could still take shelter in the schoolhouse. Though he could barely see or breathe, he decided to set out for home.      Once he had made that decision, a door shut behind him. After a dozen steps into the storm, he could not have returned to the schoolhouse if he wanted to.
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History. Nature. Nonfiction. HTML:

"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. . . . 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 The Devil in the White City

"Heartbreaking. . . . This account of the 1888 blizzard reads like a thriller."Entertainment Weekly

The gripping true 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 the next morning, 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. David Laskin has produced a masterful portrait of a tragic crucible in the settlement of the American heartland.

The P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

.

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