Book review: ‘The Children’s Blizzard,’ by David Laskin
Special to the Daily
Anyone living west of the Mississippi is familiar with the changeable nature of weather on the plains. Winters are harsh, and summers are hot, and rare is the tree under which to shelter from either. Familiar, too, is the odd, warm wind that can surprise you on a winter day, luring you outside and tricking you into thinking that spring is right around the corner. People raised on the northern plains know better, though, than to trust those tempting winds; they were brought up hearing the stories, the histories of their ancestors and the one blizzard that would forever change the lives of many.
David Laskin captures those stories in “The Children’s Blizzard,” his gripping account of the famous 1888 storm. When the Dakotas were still a territory and the railroads reigned, settlers, primarily immigrants seeking a little slice of the American dream, headed west in droves.
Laskin introduces us to a handful of these brave souls, all of whom turned their backs on their familiar lives in their home countries — Norway, Ukraine and Germany — on the promise of a richer tomorrow.
Not uninitiated in wintry weather, the settlers arrived with high hopes and a perseverance to hold them through the long winter months. Laskin gives a rich account of the immigrants’ first years, before the winds of the deadly blizzard blew down from the Arctic. He documents their Atlantic crossing, with its own perils and grief, and their uncomfortable journeys westward in the overcrowded cattle-car trains. Families who made it all the way to the Dakotas were hardy and seemed ready for anything, settling into their little hollows along the creek beds and building their schoolhouses on the infrequent swells of land so they could be visible as the pioneer children walked to and from class.
That January day in 1888 started as a temptress of a morning, with a clear sky and light winds and a promise of fair weather as a midwinter treat. Laskin delves deeply into the weather forecasting of that day and the era, in general. There were no bus stop forecasts with interactive Doppler radar available, of course, but weather forecasting did exist, albeit it as a new and imperfect science. There were U.S. Army troops, though, assigned to monitor the weather readings from stations around the Midwest and into Canada.
Weather reporting was not instantaneous, of course, so as a “cold wave” warning had not been sent along the telegraph lines that morning, individuals throughout the Dakota Territory, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota stepped out into the alluring, mild air. The weather they saw with their own eyes that morning was all they had on which to base their plans for the day, and it was a costly decision for many. Children headed off to school, many abandoning their coats at home. Farmers took to the fields to give their livestock some much-needed fresh air. It had been a long winter, and the reprieve was inviting.
As the storm unfolds, Laskin’s careful documenting shifts into overdrive and the book becomes a terrifying thriller, with the killer blizzard as the antagonist bent on destruction. Assembling survivor accounts into an engaging time line, Laskin lays out the terrible events of that day, as day turned to night and children literally froze in their tracks. All across the region, people were caught unawares, their delightfully warm day turning to ice in the matter of minutes.
Schoolteachers barely older than some of their students made a variety of decisions that day, with some choices saving lives and others dooming them. Those who chose to ride out the storm in the schoolhouses struggled to keep warm, burning desks and books to feed the fire through the long night.
Shelter came in a variety of forms. Haystacks and overturned wagons became both salvations and graves, and people and livestock became scattered, the arctic winds swirling up the snow into a blinding hurricane. Some froze mere steps from their own doors, the tears in their eyes freezing the lids together, making it impossible to see. The drifts quickly claimed those who collapsed as they staggered about in the snow, and they slipped slowly away into death.
Laskin uses the accounts of the lucky ones, those who survived that day, to build the stories of those who were lost to the storm. There were heroes and heroines, youngsters who became adults that day, saving their students or their classmates. There were brothers and sisters, huddling together to protect each other one last time. There were mothers and fathers making desperate attempts to reach their young ones or the animals upon which they all depended. But, the author is quick to point out that “rare are the stories of rescues. People saved themselves or they weren’t saved. With few exceptions, once a body was prostrate in the snow it stayed there.”
The end of the 19th century marked a period of transition on the prairie, as people fled their precarious aspirations in droves. Even with plagues of locusts, disastrous wildfires and harsh winters, the blizzard of 1888 was one of the first major events for the new settlers that raised the question: should people live on the prairie? For many, the answer was clear; they packed their wagons and turned their backs on the setting sun, heading east to more forgiving lands.
They left behind shattered dreams and the lonely gravesites of loved ones.
Those who did stay grew up with a fierce independence and a hardy nature, for, as Laskin notes, “A safe and carefree childhood was a luxury the pioneer prairie could not afford.” Stoicism and tenacity became the noble qualities of the rugged homesteaders who remained and who helped move the American West into the 20th century and beyond.
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