The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is similar to The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. It tells of a freak blizzard that hit the northern plains states in 1888. Scores of immigrants had sold everything and come to the rich lands of the American prairie only to find that the harsh climate could destroy those dreams in a day. The blizzard was called "the children's blizzard" because it struct about the time that children were going or returning from school. The weather bureau was in its infancy and the politics of the government agency and the conflicting claims of the railroad made it difficult to get what little warning there was out to the people. Actually, while there were problems with the weather bureau, this storm was so huge, so freakish and moving so rapidly that it was probably unpredictable with the weather instruments of the day and impossible to get word to the people on the prairie who had no phones or radios. This storm stands out like the 1935 hurricane in the Florida Keys and the Galveston hurricane of 1909 and the perfect storm of 1991...perfect, but sinister storms where every variable added more fuel to the raging tempests.
I remember a storm a little like this from my childhood in St. Louis. The weather of the morning of the storm was very mild and, like the children in the book, we went to school without boots, gloves or even hats. Out of nowhere came an incredible drop in temperature...in the case of the 1888 storm of even 30 degrees in less than half an hour. In our case, traffic came to a standstill and our buses couldn't run. We were kept at school for hours and hours watching the snow build and wondering if someone could come and get us. The nuns played games with us and allowed us to slide on the hall floors, something totally forbidden, in order to keep us from panicking, but the snow continued to rage. Finally a neighbor walked home from his work and then walked the 2 miles to the school bringing winter hats, boots and mittens for us and we set out for home. I will always be grateful for those wonderful nuns whose faith and good nature made our wait more of an adventure than anxiety. I remember standing at the window, realizing that it was possible than no one could get through and I remember one of the nuns calling us to slide on the perfectly waxed floors and making a game of who could slide the furthest. The incredible novelty of being encouraged to break such a hard fast rule made me leave my fears at the window and revel in such an unexpected pleasure.
The teachers and students of 1888 didn't have paved roads lined with houses to follow as we did. Teachers faced the decision to keep the children at school and hope their firewood held out or was enough to keep them freezing in temperatures of -30 degrees, or to lead them home as quickly as possible. In some cases, the decision didn't matter. They were doomed no matter what they chose. In other cases, some children miraculously were found alive where they seemingly had little chance of making it and others were found dead all huddled together on the bare prairie.
It wasn't just children. Farmers got lost going to the barn and froze to death just feet from their homes. Cattle froze standing up and toppled over when it began to thaw. Some communities lost dozens of members and some families lost almost all their children in just one day. Little decisions, easily made, spelled life or death.
I would recommend this book to everyone. It is a glimpse into the tremendous power of nature an a reminder that no matter how advanced we become, we can never control nature. It is also an excellent glimpse into the life of early immigrants and the prairie they lost so much to tame.
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