July 31, 2017

Book Review: The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin

The Children's Blizzard

by David Laskin

Genres: U.S. History, Nonfiction, Science and Nature
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Length: 307 pages
Published: October 11, 2005
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Audible

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"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."


"It was the age of confidence. Arrogance was epidemic."

Excerpt: (from the Prologue)

"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. Every crevice, every gap and orifice instantly filled with shattered crystals, blinding, smothering, suffocating, burying anything explosed to the wind. The cold front raced down the undefended grasslands like a crack unstoppable army. Montana fell before dawn; North Dakota went while farmers were out doing their morning chores; South Dakota, during morning recess; Nebraska as school clocks rounded toward dismissal. In three minutes the front subtracted 18 degrees from the air's temperature. Then evening gathered in and temperatures kept dropping steadily, hour after hour, in the northwest gale. Before midnight, windchills were down to 40 below zero. That's when the killing happened. By the morning on Friday the thirteenth, hundreds of people lay dead on the Dakota and Nebraska prairie, many of them children who had fled--or been dismissed from--country schools at the moment when the wind shifted and the sky exploded."

My Book Review: 

Set in Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota during the late nineteenth century, Laskin's book tells the story of the infamous blizzard of January 12, 1888 that hit without warning and left behind hundreds of victims. As a childhood fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, the harsh Midwest winters have long fascinated me.

While I learned much from this book and appreciated the vast research that went into telling the tale, I struggled with the tone and style: the narrative frequently jumps around time, place, and person, and can be a bit cold and unfeeling given the grave subject matter. The chaos, however, does reflect the disaster itself and the inability of many of its victims to do anything to save themselves and others. Overall, I really liked reading this collection of research.

Laskin's book is a very well-researched account of the impact and aftermath of the Midwest's deadliest blizzard and a great resource if you're interested in this tragic piece of U.S. history.

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