Summary and book reviews of The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin

The Children's Blizzard

By David Laskin

The Children's Blizzard
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2004,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2005,
    336 pages.

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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.

Chapter One
Departures and Arrivals

Land, freedom, and hope. In the narrow stony valleys of Norway and the heavily taxed towns of Saxony and Westphalia, in Ukrainian villages bled by the recruiting officers of the czars and Bohemian farms that had been owned and tilled for generations by the same families, land, freedom, and hope meant much the same thing in the last quarter of the nineteenth century: America. Word had spread throughout Europe that there was land -- empty land, free land -- in the middle of the continent to the west. Land so flat and fertile and unencumbered that a family could plant as soon as they got there and harvest their first season. "Great prairies stretching out as far as one could see," wrote one Norwegian immigrant of the image that lured him and his wife and three sons to America in 1876, "with never a stone to gather up, a tree to cut down, or a stump to grub out -- the soil so black and rich that as somebody said, you had only ‘to tickle it with...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction

On the morning of January 12, 1888, a snow storm of unprecedented ferocity and suddenness swept down on the American prairie. One moment the air was clear and mild, the next a blinding wall of ice dust engulfed the landscape in an instantaneous white-out. Thousands were caught out on the prairie without protection. Children on their way home from one-room prairie schools, farmers taking care of their livestock, families doing errands in towns -- all were overtaken by this terrible storm. But the blizzard itself was just the beginning of their peril. In the wake of the front that propelled the storm, some of the coldest air ever recorded spread over the region. As darkness fell, temperatures from Montana...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

I started reading The Children's Blizzard out of a sense of duty to the publisher, so I could hold my head up and honestly say that I'd given it my best shot, but just like the reviewer for Entertainment Weekly, I ended up hooked by the gripping story, and read it cover to cover in one evening, despite the fact that much of this time was spent in an increasingly cold bathtub of water.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (352 words).

Media Reviews
Bob Cannon, Entertainment Weekly

You'd think that 307 pages about the weather would be literary NyQuil. But this account of the 1888 blizzard that killed more than 100 children in the Great Plains reads like a thriller in which a deranged predator preys upon an unsuspecting frontier population.

Publishers Weekly

In 1888, a sudden, violent blizzard swept across the American plains, killing hundreds of people, many of them children on their way home from school. As Laskin writes in this gripping chronicle of meteorological chance and human folly and error, the School Children's Blizzard, as it came to be known, was 'a clean, fine blade through the history of the prairie'.

Library Journal

On an unseasonably warm winter day in the Great Plains, a ferocious blizzard suddenly blew up out of nowhere, and soon 500 people (mostly children) were dead. A harrowing story from the author of Braving the Elements.

Kirkus Reviews

Popular historian Laskin (Partisans, 2000, etc.) gives an engrossing if speculative account of a brutal 1888 blizzard that signaled the end of optimism on the Great Plains....A suspenseful disaster narrative.

Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

...a perceptive presentation, evoking lives--many those of children--unnoticed by history but for the tragedy of this storm. Schools were in session when the tempest roared across the plain; teachers, as Laskin recounts, made varied and fateful decisions about saving their students. An adroit, sensitive drama and a skillful addition to a popular genre.

Author Blurb Erik Larson, author of Isaac's Storm and The Devil in the White City
Laskin captures the brutal, heartbreaking folly of this chapter in America's history.

Reader Reviews
Anonymous

Good human interest, revisionist history
This book is a really good read, and the human interest parts of it are exceptional. However, I take exception to the revisionist tone of the book. The author is judging the decisions of people in 1874-1888 based on modern ideas and technology. It...   Read More

Paula

he Children's Blizzard
The event behind the book is fascinating. To try to comprehend the destruction that this storm left behind is almost unbearable. The book is interesting. The style of writing is at times disjointed. I found myself tempted to skip the page after ...   Read More

Esther W.

Gripping, haunting and heartbreaking
I happened upon this book while browsing, and am really glad I decided to buy it. It's one of the best books I've ever read. The story of these families, children and adults is heartbreaking, the medical information is fascinating, and the detailed ...   Read More

Catherine G. Lind

Children's Blizzard story
After reading the book, which I did almost non stop, it was so sad and bittersweet and a real look into our history. You could see the storm in your minds eye progressing, I learned more about how weather works in the best possible way. I will not ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

According to David Laskin's final chapter, 'nearly 70% of the counties in the Great Plains states have fewer people today than they did in 1950.  These days nearly one million acres of the plains are so sparsely populated that they meet the condition of frontier as defined by the Census Bureau in the nineteenth century.... and Indian and buffalo populations have now reached levels that the region has not seen since the 1870s.  The white farmers and townspeople who remain would shun you for daring to say it, but in large stretches of the prairie it's beginning to look like European agricultural settlement is a completed chapter of history.'

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