The Children’s Blizzard (David Laskin)

History isn’t made only by politicians and generals. Often it’s a story of common people living through extraordinary situations and unlikely heroes suffering unexpected hardships. One such page in America’s history was retold in David Laskin’s book The Children’s Blizzard [LibraryThing / WorldCat]. One unseasonably warm January morning in 1888, children across the upper Midwest left their homes to walk across the prairies to their local schoolhouses. The pleasant weather prompted parents to send their kids off in light clothing without a second thought.

But weather in the wide open spaces of the Great Plains can change rapidly. A few places have recorded temperature drops as precipitous as 80 degrees in just twelve hours. In 1888, before satellite photography and widespread communications systems, a cold northerly wind blasted down on the plains. A storm blew in before anyone saw it coming. By the time most teachers realized they might have to send their pupils home, the storm was already upon them. Dozens of kids got lost en route, blinded by the snow. Others found temporary shelters or bundled together for warmth. And parents, checking on the welfare of their children, searched for them in the growing darkness. The bodies of many kids, frozen and clustered together, weren’t found until the next day.

Laskin tells the story of the School Children’s Blizzard from many perspectives. He chronicles developments in the science of weather forecasting that failed people at this crucial moment. He introduces you to several pioneer families and the older brothers were always looking out for their siblings. He expresses the worry and panic of the families during their hours of waiting and searching. You can’t read this book without feeling some of the utter sadness these families endured. And feeling bitterly cold.

By the way: A book that I read earlier this year chronicles another huge, sudden, temperature-related Midwest tragedy. Firestorm at Peshtigo [LibraryThing / WorldCat] by Denise Gess, is an account of the massive inferno on the same night as the famous Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The blaze ravaged far-flung communities in three states, but grew unimaginably worse once the ferocious fire created its own tornado and destroyed the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Like The Children’s Blizzard, Firestorm at Peshtigo packs a wallop every time you finish a chapter and say to yourself, “Man, this really happened.

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