Review of The Children’s Blizzard written by David Laskin
As I write this, the first cold blast of the season is affecting half the U.S. I knew it was coming a week ago. The story told in The Children’s Blizzard is about an even more devasting cold blast and blizzard that rushed across the upper U.S. in 1888 with little warning and the loss of life that it caused.
While the devasting blizzard of January 12, 1888, is at the center of this story, the book touches on several other topics: weather forecasting before satelites, life on the great plains in the early 19th century, and weather science.
The author doesn’t discuss climate change, but it was on my mind as I read about record snowfalls and sub-zero temperatures. We still get plenty of snow and cold temperatures, but these events are not nearly as severe as in the past.
To say that these early settlers had a hard time is an understatement. Cheap land and farming was the promise that lured thousands of people from the safe confines of the big cities to the unknown open plains. That rosy picture didn’t last long. Farmers faced three significant hurdles in bringing their crops to market: fires that swept across the land, drought and early cold spells, and insect damage.
As for the blizzard of 1888, it was just one of many that ended in death for both people and livestock. What made this particular blizzard noteworthy was the number of school children that died. The day started sunny and warmer than previous days and weeks. Many school-age children headed off to school for the first time in weeks. The cold, wind, and snow came unexpectedly. Teachers had to decide whether it was better to release the children out into the storm or ride it out in a wood-frame schoolhouse with limited heating.
The author recounts numerous stories of what happened to those teachers and children as they tried to find shelter from the storm. Most of those caught in the blizzard were ill-prepared. They were under-dressed. Limited visibility made it difficult to find familiar landmarks. Many of those that died were found later only feet from safety. Those that did survive the night suffered from severe frostbite. In the end, some 250 people lost their lives.