Reviewed by Christy H.
On January 12, 1888 a terrible blizzard swept across the Great Plains, taking many of its residents by complete surprise. While the days leading up to it were bitterly cold with the temperatures well below zero, on the morning of January 12th, the temperatures rose by 20 – 40 degrees throughout the prairie. 20 or 30 degrees above zero is downright balmy after enduring weeks of snow and wind. Because of this, many farmers ventured out to take care of some chores. Many children begged their mothers to let them go to school, surely tired of being cooped up at home for weeks on end. While many acquiesced, one mother had a bad feeling that she couldn’t explain. She begged her children to stay home. Only the youngest, eager to sooth his worried mother, obeyed.
David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard is a captivating account of a freak weather manifestation in the prairie lands during the 1880s. The pull quote on the cover states it “reads like a thriller” and though I was skeptical at first I have to say that I totally agree with that. There is a bit of a slow start because Laskin explains the weather phenomena that led to the blizzard. I appreciate the attempt but I have to admit it took several re-readings of those particular paragraphs to feel like I absorbed anything (Although I’m confident that has more to do with me than the author). I won’t attempt to explain the complex meteorology but suffice it to say, a series of particular weather conditions had to be present for this anomaly to occur. And sure enough, one by one, each condition locked into place, and soon the pioneers of the prairie had everything stacked against them.
The Children’s Blizzard, sometimes known as the Schoolhouse Blizzard, earned its name unfortunately because so many school children perished. Some teachers, not realizing the magnitude of the storm, sent their pupils home early. As the blizzard descended, survivors described it as a rolling white, “eating up” trees in the distance. It was easy for anyone to veer off path because they were constantly fighting the wind and the small, hard snow pellets that filled their eyes, noses and mouths. The snow would mix with their tears, freeze into a crust, and seal their eyes shut. Many of them were walking blind.
What Laskin does so well, and what makes this non-fiction book read like a suspense novel, is his careful back story for these historical figures. He introduces them one by one; he describes their hopes and their heartache, and their extraordinary endurance to emigrate from their home country to literal wilderness. A few featured include:
- · Walter Allen was an eight year old boy who arrived at school early that day. When the blizzard hit, the teacher dismissed them early. Just as they were leaving, men steering horse drawn sleighs pulled up to the door – five of them in fact – to help get the children home. As they were loading up, Walter realized he forgot his precious perfume bottle (filled with water and used to clean his slate). Not wanting it to freeze and break, he jumped off the cart, ran inside to grab it, and hurried back. But it was too late. The carts were leaving and already barely visible. He briefly considered going back inside but instead turned and walked out into the snow. He was miraculously found by his older brother hours later lying in the snow. He survived.
- · Etta Shattuck was a young schoolteacher who survived three days in a haystack. When she was rescued the newspapers went crazy for her story and declared her a hero. Money was raised for her medical expenses but three and a half weeks after she was found she sadly passed away.
- · Minnie Freeman was also a young schoolteacher who became somewhat of a celebrity. None of her pupils died, and it was said that she tied ropes to their waists to keep them all together as they ventured into the storm (though one student disputes this). As with Etta, Minnie was hailed a hero, and the newspapers couldn’t get enough of her. A song was written about her ordeal, and many men wrote to her to propose marriage.
A couple of children survived the long night only to die of cardiac arrest after taking a couple of steps in the morning. Some survived weeks before succumbing. Others lived long lives but with wooden feet or missing hands. Those who survived would never forget it, and the stories would become legends to their grandchildren and great grandchildren. It is estimated that between 250 – 500 people died.
Laskin has written a page-turning account of a truly historical storm. He details the meteorology behind it, how weather was forecast back then, and even describes the intricacies of what hypothermia can do to the body. But the heart of the story is, of course, those affected. You feel for every single child caught in the snow as well as the parents who desperately search for them. As winter winds down, I am grateful that modern technology can give us ample warning of snow and that it doesn’t have to be a devastating disaster.