The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin

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This is a novel about the severe blizzard which, after an ordinary-seeming morning, hit the Great Plains one afternoon in January 1888, killing  235 people and causing many others to lose limbs or digits to frostbite.   It’s sometimes called “The Children’s Blizzard” because, due to the timing, many of the victims were school pupils trying to make their way home at the end of the school day.

As readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder will know, teachers at that time and place could be girls of just 15 or 16, little more than children themselves.  They were the ones who had to decide whether their pupils should wait out the storm in the schoolhouses, try to get home, or try to reach another place of shelter.  Two of the four threads of the book are those of two such teachers, sisters, one of whom was hailed as a heroine in the national press as well as locally, the other of whom was vilified for making what turned out to be a bad choice.  The other main characters are a hired girl and a “booster”.

Boosters, who featured a lot in The Beautiful Snow, aimed to persuade people from Europe, mainly Scandinavia, and the eastern US to settle in Minnesota and Dakota Territory, giving a very over-favourable impression of the farming conditions and climate there.   Most of the characters in the book were Norwegian immigrants, and the author seems to contend that the US authorities and eastern US society weren’t overly concerned what became of them.

For some reason, there aren’t a lot of books about Scandinavian settlers in the Great Plains.  Vilhelm Moberg’s four The Emigrants books, about a Swedish family, spring to mind, and Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions Norwegian neighbours;  but most people’s image of immigrants in the late 19th century US is of people from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe crowding into New York City.   And, other than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s brief reference to a black doctor, I can’t think of any other books mentioning black settlers in the area, as this one does.  And the settlement of the area in general doesn’t get much attention, with the obvious exception of Laura’s books. Incidentally, I just did a “Goodreads” search on “pioneer”, and 8 out of the top 10 results were books by Laura.  Other than Willa Cather, none of the other authors or books in the top 25 were well-known.  Yet both the Native American Wars and the Dust Bowl have attracted a lot of attention from different quarters.  It’s strange.

It’s an interesting subject, not least because it’s had so little coverage; but it’s not the most gripping of books, which I think is largely because it’s so focused on the one incident, and goes into it very quickly.  We don’t really have chance to get to know and care about the characters before they and we are swept up in the blizzard.   But it’s still a fascinating story, about the hardship faced by the pioneers, many of whom had thought they were going to a land of plenty.   And, without wishing to get political, it’s interesting to think how often, in the past, there were places which were desperate for immigrants, so desperate that they deliberately gave a falsely favourable impression of the lands they wanted settling in order to get people in; and how that’s changed.

The best part of the book was actually the last few chapters, about what happened to the girls after the blizzard.   What happened sounded far-fetched, but is based on real accounts of the time.  The hired girl and the “right” sister briefly became the 1880s’ equivalent of tabloid celebs, benefited from a “Heroine Fund” set up by a newspaper and were able to start new and better lives.  The “wrong” sister ended up teaching at an “Indian school” in Montana and being horrified by the abuses committed there.   I think the author felt that she had to include that, given the current (unfair) fashion for criticising the Little House books.   And both the booster and the hired girl’s mistress were overcome with guilt over the way they’d treated them, which felt rather like a 19th century American moralising novel.  Somehow, that all made for better reading than the drama of the blizzard, maybe because we actually got to know the characters better.

All in all, I don’t think that I’ll be reading this again, but I’m certainly glad that I’ve read it once.  If you can find a reasonably-priced copy, it’s worth a go.

3 thoughts on “The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin

  1. I’ve enjoyed a few of Melanie Benjamin’s other books, so I would like to give this one a try. I haven’t read very much about this time and place in American history apart from, as you say, the Little House books!

    Liked by 1 person

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