Like author David Laskin, I, too, share a passion for wild and unpredictable weather. In The Children’s Blizzard, his breathtaking account of one of the freakiest of freak storms to ever terrorize terra firma, Laskin recreates the struggles of the settlers of the Great Plains, many of whom ended up victims of a monstrous blizzard that took everyone by surprise on the fateful day of January 12, 1888.
Called “the Children’s Blizzard” by those who lived to tell about it, the massive and brutal cold front took the lives of hundreds of people literally left out in the cold, most of them young children on their way home from school. The storm itself is such an anomoly, weather predictors failed to gage its potential destructiveness, as they did with the Galveston hurricane in the early 1900s, and the settlers of the Dakota-Nebraska prairie were caught totally unaware by a brute of a storm that witnesses claim came out of nowhere.
The morning of January 12th, 1888, actually started out a bit mild, and the people of the Dakotas, Minnesota and Nebraska went about life as they always did. Children walked to their one-room schoolhouses, some without hats or jackets, others in shirt-sleeves. Older kids worked the fields or ran errands. Adults tended to farms and babies and their livestock. There was no, absolutely no, indication of what was to come in the hours ahead.
Witnesses say that it happened so fast. Suddenly, there was a roaring sound and a raging fury of wind and snow blasted down and across the plains, dropping temperatures deep below freezing within a matter of minutes. For anyone out in the cold, there were only precious seconds to react. Those who thought the storm would blow over quickly and dared venture out into the heart of the blizzard would find themselves unable to see two inches in front of them, unable to breath the thickening snow-dust air, unable to find their way in a sea of blinding white as ice froze their eyelids shut.
Laskin, author of Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather, combines pure historical fact with interview snippets from survivors to create a vivid portrayal of that deadly day in American history. He first introduces us to the rugged families who sought to tame the prairie, many immigrants from the Ukraine, Germany and Russia. We meet the children, parents and teachers whose lives would be drastically altered once the storm hit. We go with rescuers into the white horror of the storm to seek lost sons, daughters, teachers and farmers. So realistic and descriptive is Laskin’s writing, I actually felt chilled to the bone reading this fascinating, yet tragic account.
There were many heroes of the Children’s Blizzard, and their accounts offer some relief from the sheer grief the loss of so many innocent children is bound to elicit. The book focuses mainly on five families who lived and suffered through the storm, and their recollections convey the horrific nature of not just the storm itself, but of the dark days that followed, where some families celebrated the rescue of their loved ones and others buried their children in nearby graveyards.
The failure of the government forecasters to track the storm and warn the Plains settlers in time adds to the tragic element of this all-too-true indictment of our inability to predict when and where treacherous storms will strike. This particular storm was such a rarity that it seemed more supernatural than natural. It came with such speed, killed with such fury, and left the people of the prairie in a state of collective shock. Laskin also examines the storm itself – how it began and what amazing forces of wind and heat and cold, both subtle and strong, fell into place to create its dynamics.
David Laskin allows us to experience a part of history that we would not wish to ever live through, a day when the sun rose and cast a deceptive spell that would be shattered once the clouds gathered and the monster storm rolled across the land, flattening everything in its path. The Children’s Blizzard will leave you stunned (you’ll learn more about hypothermia and how people die of cold than you ever thought possible) and breathless and turning the pages as fast as your fingers can handle.
Bundle up, though. There is a chill in the air.