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The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin
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The Children's Blizzard (2004)

by David Laskin

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On January 12, 1888, a snowstorm from hell swept across America's Great Plains. Temperatures rapidly dropped to levels that sound more fitting for Antarctica, and blowing snow crystals reduced the visibility to zero, making it nearly impossible to find one's way to shelter. Hundreds of people died. A distressing number of them were children, since the storm hit while schools were in session, and many of the kids, with or without their teachers, ventured out into the storm in an attempt to get home from school, or at least to reach someplace better stocked with firewood.

I have to say, my primary reactions to this history of what was to be called "The Schoolchildren's Blizzard" seems to consist largely of "This is interesting, but..."

The account of the storm itself actually takes up less of the book than one might expect. First, it's preceded by some background on the settlement of the American prairies and the history of various immigrant families who were caught in the blizzard, including the motivations that drove them to leave their former homes and the hardships they faced on the journey and afterward. This is interesting, but it bounces back and forth between the tales of the various families so much that I found it a little difficult to keep track of everyone.

Then it goes on to explain in great detail how the storm formed, what the state of weather forecasting was at the time, whose job it was to predict this sort of thing, and why there wasn't more warning. This is interesting, but contains perhaps more information about the internal politics of 19th century weather forecasting than I ever actually wanted to know.

The chapters that do cover the events of the storm are rather gripping, with harrowing accounts of what people experienced and some very detailed and vivid descriptions of exactly what happens to the human body as it succumbs to hypothermia. This is interesting -- very much so -- but, well, it turns out that reading about children freezing to death is just really not a good time. (I know, who would have thought?)

All of this has, however, left me with one very useful realization: I never, ever, ever want to live someplace like South Dakota. I mean, I kind of already knew that, but now I'm really sure. It's not even so much due to hearing about the horrors of the blizzard, as about how the just-slightly-below-freezing temperatures that preceded it kept being described as "warm," or even "balmy." If you ask me, anywhere that's considered warm is just not fit for human habitation. ( )
  bragan | Aug 20, 2018 |
Reading on the recommendation of a friend. ( )
  phantomswife | Jul 6, 2018 |
A very thorough accounting of the blizzard of 1888, known as the Children's Blizzard. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of background that is covered in this book. It covers not only the people and the storm itself, but also the history of how they came to the U.S. and settled in the area, and the geography and the meteorology of this time and place in the country.

Mr. Laskin begins with a look at the settlement of western Minnesota, the Dakotas and Nebraska. We get to know some of the families who immigrated to the U.S., how and why they came. Why they choose the prairie to settle, and the hardships they endured coming and settling here. Then the book switches over to a bit of history of the Weather Bureau, how it worked (or didn't), and how the politics of the day impacted their work.

The author discusses the weather patterns over that part of the country, and then goes into quite a lot of detail about the storm itself. This is especially enlightening in demonstrating how this particular winter storm was so much worse than any other. This was not just an ordinary blizzard.

Of course we get the stories of individuals who both survived the storm, and those who did not. I was particularly surprised at how many managed to survive the storm, only to succumb in it's aftermath. I think most of us (at least myself), think that if you manage to survive until the weather is clear, you'll be all right. That is not the case. ( )
  catzkc | Mar 23, 2018 |
It's obvious that the author is a meteorological nerd and it overwhelms the book. The anecdotal tales are the highlight, and revealing this horrible incident is a justification for writing it. I also enjoyed the back stories of the Norwegian immigrants, in these fraught anti-immigrant days of the worst president ever. But all the arcane weather data prevented my absorption in the narrative. ( )
1 vote froxgirl | Jan 29, 2018 |
From the disaster response reading program. A generic disaster book – capsule biographies of the doomed; capsule biographies of whoever the author has decided are to blame for the disaster; some scientific/technical background; ominous warning signs that everybody ignores; disaster; heroism; death; follow-up on the survivors.


In this case, the disaster is The Children’s Blizzard of 1888; the doomed are an assortment of Norwegian/Ukrainian immigrants to the Dakotas; the guilty parties are the railroads/steamship companies that seduced innocent European farmers into coming to a North American deathtrap and the United States Signal Corps (in charge of weather prediction at the time); the technical background includes explanations of weather systems and medical details of exactly what happens as you die of hypothermia; the warning signs were an ominous cloud on the horizon for the immigrants and supposedly tell-tale drops in barometric pressure for the Weather Service; the disaster is the sudden onset of a blizzard accompanied by a massive temperature drop; heroism includes various people that wandered out in the blizzard looking for husbands/wives/children/etc.; death involves about 250 people; follow-up on the survivors includes the authors visit to various now-abandoned homesites and cemeteries.


Well enough for this sort of thing. There’s always something to learn; I had no idea the Weather Service was as sophisticated as it was in 1888. Observations were gathered from all over the US and Canada, charted, and “indications” (the word “prediction” was forbidden) telegraphed all over the country. The Service did, in fact, predict a “cold wave” but the warning arrived too late – at least according to author David Laskin. Laskin doesn’t speculate on how a more timely warning could have been communicated to Dakota farmers miles from the nearest town, but instead criticizes the Weather Service’s focus on warning railroads and fruit growers of impending weather. Laskin produces an original weather chart from the day; however, his explanation of cyclones, anticyclones, air masses and so on cries out for a few diagrams rather than paragraphs of text, no matter how clear.


The heroism is sometimes truly heroic and sometimes a little dubious. The reason the storm was called “The Children’s Blizzard” is so many schoolchildren were killed. The day started with the first warm spell in weeks; many schoolchildren forsook their usually heavy coats and mittens. The storm hit just as school was letting out. Many school teachers were cited as “heroines” because they led their charges to nearby houses – with varying degrees of success. The prudent thing to do, of course, would have been to keep them in the school house; some did exactly that with no ill effects but only get a casual mention. In at least one case, a teacher locked the doors to keep her charges inside, only to have a couple of the burlier farm boys overpower her, break the door down, and escape. And die. The urge to follow a pattern – when school’s done, you go home – overpowered obedience to authority and common sense, a recurring theme in disasters. Laskin follows one little boy, Walter Allen, who had a favorite item in his desk – a pretty perfume bottle he kept in his desk, full of water, to wipe off his slate. Farmers showed up at the school with heavy drays to evacuate the children. Walter boarded a dray with everybody else only to jump off and run back to school and retrieve his bottle, fearing it would break when frozen. It only took a few seconds but the dray was already out of site when he got out again – visibility was less than a yard. Then Walter decided to walk home rather than return to the school house. (He survived; his brother realized he was missing, went back to look for him, and stumbled over his unconscious body, and barely managed to get the pair of them back to town. The perfume bottle froze anyway.)


Laskin’s discussion of the mechanics of hypothermia death discloses something else I didn’t know before – rewarming shock. Apparently when you start to warm after near freezing, chilled blood from the extremities begins to return to the heart and sets off ventricular fibrillation. Laskin has several stories of children who survived the night somehow, then dropped dead a few seconds after they stood up in the morning.


While the stories are interesting enough, Laskin misses the opportunity to discuss what to do if the reader ever finds themselves in similar circumstances (his basic advice is “don’t live in the Dakotas”). The lesson is fairly obvious from the text, though – if you are in any kind of shelter, stay there. As mentioned, schoolteachers who kept their children inside invariably survived with their charges – even in a case where the roof blew off the school. Several of the teachers who lead children out into the storm explained latter that they didn’t have enough fuel for the schoolhouse stove and were convinced the children would freeze to death in the unheated building, ignoring the seemingly obvious fact that subzero in a shelter is vastly better than subzero with a 40 mph wind and blowing, blinding snow (to be completely fair, there were a few farmers that froze to death in their houses; circumstance were somewhat different, though – people came to the schoolhouses almost immediately after the blizzard ended, while isolated farmhouses were ignored until the neighbors dug themselves out and saw to their own problems). There are still a few deaths every year when people ignore the stay-in-shelter principle; their car is stuck in a storm on I-90, they can see the lights of a town just down the road and figure they can walk there in a few minutes and get hot food and a room; their bodies thaw out of the drifts in April. I always have a sleeping bag and a couple of emergency blankets in my car; I hope I’ll be smart enough to use them if the situation ever arises. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 21, 2017 |
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David Laskinprimary authorall editionscalculated
Schuck, MaryCover designersecondary 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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Book description
January 12, 1888, began as an unseasonably warm morning across Nebraska, the Dakota's and Minnesota, the weather so mild that children walked to school without coats or 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 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.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060520760, Paperback)

Thousands of impoverished Northern European immigrants were promised that the prairie offered "land, freedom, and hope." The disastrous blizzard of 1888 revealed that their free homestead was not a paradise but a hard, unforgiving place governed by natural forces they neither understood nor controlled, and America’s heartland would never be the same.

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:21 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

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.… (more)

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