Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin


Are you ready to read a riveting historical fiction novel about one of the most devastating natural disasters in our history? 

 In January 1888, schools across the great plains had a reason to celebrate.  The weather was abnormally warm and pleasant.  Pioneers run errands and tend to outdoor items, while the kids go to school lightly dressed.  By early afternoon, the weather has taken a turn for the worse with a devastating blizzard striking seemingly out of the blue.  Most schools had little coal or wood to keep them warm, and zero visibility conditions made it impossible to leave.  What will the young schoolteachers (some as young as fifteen or sixteen) do to keep their young charges safe?

 One of my favorite books of 2018 was the non-fiction book The Children’s Blizzard by David Laski which told the true accounts of the pioneers that lived through this terrible event.  I recognized many of these stories retold in a fictionalized version in this novel.  What I really loved is that author Melanie Benjamin primarily told the story through the perspective of two different sisters, Raina and Gerda Olsen, and how they handled the crisis in completely different ways.  It really made me ponder the hard decision that these young women had to make on their own and the terrible consequences of these actions.

 Other viewpoints include Gavin Woodson.  Woodson was a reporter who used advertisements to lure pioneers to the area often with false promises of a land of wonder rather than hardship.  After the blizzard, he seeks redemption through his writing of the event.  Anette Pederson is an unloved servant girl whose main worry is getting home on time to prevent herself getting in trouble. 

 I especially loved that an African American family was included in this story.  Ol’ Lieutenant is rumored to be a Buffalo soldier and runs a saloon in downtown Omaha.  He is being forced out by city leaders who want him to move to the north side of town with other African American families.  When the blizzard hits, Ol’ Lieutenant has to save his own daughters.  When Gavin Woodson leaves his saloon to start his trek across the prairie to find stories of the blizzard, Ol’ Lieutenant tells him, “While you’re out there hunting for stories, make sure you talk about colored folk, too.  You know there’s a settlement west of Yankton – in Sully County – that’s mainly colored.  Maybe you can get up that way?  There are people here in town would like to hear about them, see if they made it through.”  My only sadness with the book is that Woodson never talks about this settlement or visits Ol’ Lieutenant again.  I love seeing historical fiction being more inclusive and showing the people that were actually there. 

 Readers of my blog know that I am a lover of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the pioneer experience.  Poor Raina Olsen and her experience as a young teacher boarding out reminded me of Laura Ingalls as a young teacher awkward boarding with a family who did not want her there.  Raina Olsen’s experience also made me wonder how much inappropriate behavior happened when these young girls were boarded with unknown families.  It disturbs me to think about it.

 I enjoyed the note about the real history at the end of the novel.  This was a page turning book for me and I stayed up way too late last weekend reading it.  It was excellent.

 Favorite quotes:

“It’s still such a thin line, between good and bad here – success and failure, I mean.”

 “The blizzard that was, she realized, not merely a storm but also the physical manifestation of the torment of her own soul, the turbulent struggle for it bursting out and over the prairie.”

 “Like I said, this land chews people up and spits them out in pieces.  Even children.”

 Overall, The Children’s Blizzard is historical fiction at its best, a gripping account that explores the real terrors that were faced by the pioneers and the implications that trickled through time afterwards.

 Book Source:  Review Copy from NetGalley.  Thank-you!



  1. I loved David Laski's book. And I can't wait to read this one!!! :D

  2. I also loved this book. Here's my review

  3. I've had the misfortune to be caught in a week-long blizzard, but nothing as devastating this one. I just had to hoard up stuff from the supermarket because we got notifications in advance. Can't imagine how they managed in 1988! Glad you liked the book, I guess it would be intriguing to read Benjamin and Laski side-by-side to draw parallels.

  4. I am looking forward to this and hadn't come across the Laski book! I am also a LIW fan and those chapters where she is teaching school were among my favorite parts of the series (not the knife in the dark, however!). There was another series I read by Rebecca Caudill about a one-room schoolhouse. It was not as good as LIW or Betsy-Tacy but it always seemed authentic.