If you’ve spent any time in the last few weeks watching the Weather Channel, you’re accustomed to the long lead-in we have to any winter storm. Plenty of time to gas up the generator, run to the grocery store for more milk, or double- and triple-check the school closings. This riveting and often heartbreaking look at a 19th-century blizzard reminds us that once, the only warning of a deadly cold front was the wall of fast-approaching clouds and a plummeting thermometer.
In January 1888, an unprecedented winter storm swept across Nebraska, the Dakotas, and southern Minnesota, freezing cattle in their tracks, freezing farmers and their children where they fell, or sometimes even where they stood. (Yes, Jim Cantore, there was also “thunder snow.”) It became known as the “Schoolchildren’s Blizzard” because it struck on a clear, fine day when many youngsters were at school, and it was their attempts to reach the safety of home that ended in so many tragedies. Laskin’s history draws on memoirs and oral histories from pioneers who lived through the blizzard, and he notes that even the most taciturn, uncomplaining immigrants wrote about this storm as being unlike anything they had lived through before.
Just like any modern weather event, there’s a lot of talking before the weather actually hits. Laskin spends the first half of the book describing the lives of the Swiss, German, and Norwegian immigrants who came to the great prairies in search of land and freedom. He surveys the 19th-century weather service, run by officers in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The scandal-ridden weather service was surprisingly entertaining: it depended on staff like the fellow who took all of his weather observations at the local pawn shop, where he had hocked his barometers to pay off a poker debt. Laskin is actually quite poetic in describing the atmospheric dance of high and low pressure areas that builds to a winter storm. Then, finally, the blizzard itself arrives: blowing in at 45 mph, temperatures and visibility plummeting. Across the prairies, students and schoolteachers take stock of the situation and decide whether to shelter in place or strike out for the warmth of nearby homesteads. And you, the reader, want to warn them, just like we warn characters in horror movies not to head to the basement… don’t leave the schoolhouse.
The narrative follows several individuals and groups who walked into the storm and were blinded and disoriented by the wind’s intensity. They were assaulted not by the “lacy star-patterned crystals” of Christmas-card snow, but a fine, choking, blinding dust of nearly microscopic ice crystals. Disoriented, travelers wandered from their paths. The lucky ones found shelter in haystacks. Others died within sight of their destinations—if only they had been able to see. Hundreds died that night, although some survived, like schoolteacher Minnie Freeman, “Nebraska’s Fearless Maid,” who roped her charges together on their walk to safety, or so goes the song. In telling these stories, Laskin explains the physiology of hypothermia and frostbite and why some survived a night of exposure only to drop from cardiac failure as soon as they stood up the next day.
If you enjoy tales of survival and disaster like Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, The Children’s Blizzard is a sad but fascinating winter read.
Check the WRL catalog for The Children’s Blizzard.