Monday, February 19, 2018

The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin

January 12, 1888 was a date that lived in infamy for many settlers that lived in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska.  On that date they awoke to an abnormally warm winter day.  After many days of bitter cold, this seemed like the perfect day to do outdoor chores and attend school.  What they didn’t know was that a cold artic wind was blowing down from Canada that would drop the temperature as much as 70 to 80 degrees in some areas to forty below zero.  This came along with an ice driven blizzard and it arrived just when many of these children were walking home after school on the open prairie.

The Children’s Blizzard tells the personal tales of the immigrants who moved to the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska area and their brutal voyages overseas.  It also talks about the early days of the weather service.   Then the book tells the personal stories of many people on January 12th, 1888, and follows the aftermath.

The immigration stories following two main groups on their way from Norway and from the Ukraine were fascinating.  It made me realize how lucky I am that my own ancestors survived the journey over as even during the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was still common for 10% of immigrants to die on the boats over.  

I didn’t realize there was a weather prediction service in the 1880s, so reading about how it worked was fascinating to me. Although I think it’s a little harsh to totally blame the weather service.  In that day even if they would have gotten their warnings out via telegraph and hosted the cold wave flags, most of the people affected by the storms did not live close enough to see the flags and with no phones or means of communication, it’s hard to think it would have made a difference.

The varying personal stories of the day of the blizzard haunted me.  After I read the story of poor school boy Walter, I couldn’t stop thinking about it all day . . . and Walter has been dead for a long time!  There were so many tales of bravery, sacrifice, and just plain sadness.  It was nice that these real people are still remembered.

I also enjoyed that one of my favorite books, The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder was discussed.  The Long Winter was not the winter of 1888, but 1880 and Larkin verifies that Wilder captures what others experienced that winter in vivid prose.  Her descriptions describe what many others recorded in their journals and diaries in the winter of 1880.  “Laura Ingalls Wilder made the Snow Winter the subject of her novel The Long Winter.  Every detail in the book matches up exactly with the memoirs of the pioneers: the grinding of wheat in coffee mills, the endless hours of twisting prairie hay for fuel, the eerie gray twilight of the snowed-in houses, the agony of waiting and hoping that the trains would get through, the steady creep of starvation when they failed to yet again.”

I enjoyed the style of writing this non-fiction book.  I cared for the real characters and their stories felt alive.  It was a book that I have been telling everyone about and that I will think about long after I’ve read it.  The only negative I had about this book is that there were so many characters to follow, I sometimes got lost in the details.  And I like big and complicated books!  I think maybe having a section at the beginning like some novels do with a list of the real people in the book and how they are related would have been helpful.

Favorite Quotes:

“On January 12, 1888, a blizzard broke over the center of the North American continent.  Out of nowhere, a soot gray cloud appeared over the northwest horizon.  The air grew still for a long, eerie measure, then the sky began to roar and a wall of ice dust blasted the prairie.  Every crevice, every gap and orifice instantly filled with shattered crystals, blinding, smothering, suffocating, burying anything exposed to the wind.”  - Opening Lines

“Chance is always a silent partner in disaster.”  

“God inflicted ten plagues on the Egyptians to punish them for refusing to free the Israelites, but with the settlers of the North American prairie He limited himself to three:  fire grasshoppers, and weather.”

“Out on the frontier, working children made the difference between surviving and going under.”

“I am tired of talk that that comes to nothing . . .. You might as well expect the rivers to run backwards as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases.”  - Chief Joseph at his surrender.

“Under the banners of civilization and Christianity there have been committed wrongs against the Indian that must cause the most hardened man to blush with shame, “wrote Woodroof in 1881

“It’s time for us to acknowledge of American’s greatest mistakes,” wrote Nicholas D. Kristof on the op-ed page of the New York Times, “a 140-year-old scheme that has failed at a cost of trillions of dollars, countless lies and immeasurable heartbreak:  the settlement of the Great Plains.” – very controversial.  It’s an interesting topic to debate.

Overall, The Children’s Blizzards is a fascinating look into a heartbreaking chapter of our nation’s history.

Book Source: I purchased this book somewhere in South Dakota last summer on our family vacation to the Black Hills and Laura Ingalls Wilder stop of De Smet.


  1. I read this book last year and found it fascinating. (Probably because of that Laura Ingalls Wilder connection.) :D

    1. I'm glad it wasn't just me . . . although I think I've convinced a few people they should read it. It's also so fascinating for me to discover just how true Little House was after it being told they were historical fiction.

  2. Laura, this does sound like a fascinating book! Your suggestion is a good one, I think. It sounds like it would be a helpful addition. As always, I enjoyed reading the quotations you included from the book.

  3. Serendipity here! I just finished reading the novel "Winter Sisters" by Robin Oliveira which uses a combination of this blizzard and the January 1888 blizzard in the northeast (both moved back to 1879) as the basis for a very not nice thing happening to a couple of young girls.

    1. I just added Winter Sisters to my to read list - it sounds fascinating. Thanks for the suggestion!