Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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 (Partisans) 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,' a turning point in the minds of the most steadfast settlers: by the turn of the 20th century, 60% of pioneer families had left the plains. Laskin shows how portions of Minnesota, Nebraska and the Dakotas, heavily promoted by railroads and speculators, represented 'land, freedom, hope' for thousands of impoverished European immigrants particularly Germans and Scandinavians who instead found an unpredictable, sometimes brutal environment, a 'land they loved but didn't really understand.' Their stories of bitter struggle in the blizzard, which Laskin relates via survivors' accounts and a novelistic imagination, are consistently affecting. And Laskin's careful consideration of the inefficiencies of the army's inexpert weather service and his chronicle of the storm's aftermath in the papers (differences in death counts provoked a national 'unseemly brawl') add to this rewarding read. Agent, Jill Kneerim. (Nov.) Forecast: Praise from Erik Larson and Ivan Doig, a nod from the B&N Discover program, and book club attention (it's an alternate for BOMC, Literary Guild and the History Book Club) should help this title stand out." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Laskin captures the brutal, heartbreaking folly of this chapter in America's history." Erik Larson, author of Isaac's Storm and The Devil in the White City
"[A]n engrossing if speculative account of a brutal 1888 blizzard that signaled the end of optimism on the Great Plains....A suspenseful disaster narrative." Kirkus Reviews
Thousands of impoverished Northern European immigrants were promised that the prairie offered "land, freedom, and hope." The disastrous blizzard of 1888 revealed that their free homestead was not a paradise but a hard, unforgiving place governed by natural forces they neither understood nor controlled, and Americas heartland would never be the same.This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.
About the Author
David Laskin is the author of Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals and Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Preservation, and Smithsonian. He lives in Seattle.