Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Children's Blizzard...

Over our homeschool Christmas break, I delved into a chilling book -- The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin. The true story is about a freak blizzard and deep cold that hit Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa territories on January 12, 1888. The reason it is called The Children's Blizzard is because the majority of those who died in the blizzard were children who were on their way home from school.  Those pioneers who had lived on the prairie for a number years definitely knew the ways of the prairie winters, but few were ready for the suddenness of this particular blizzard.  The weather prediction and alert system was quite primitive and was done via military outposts  by the Signal Corps. It might have been more efficient if they hadn't had the government red tape of putting their "indications" through the proper channels before sending out warnings to the citizenry. Meteorological readings were made at various stations and then were reported by telegraph to Washington, DC and OK'd before warnings could be issued -- often a day late and a dollar short, so to speak.  As in this case, it left a lot of folks "out in the cold" literally.

The book was excellent at describing the mostly German and Norwegian immigrant families that came to Dakota and the surrounding territories to settle the free homestead lands. The reader feels just what it was like to live in a sod shanty in winter and eat scorched flour soup day after day and feel the deep cold creep in through any small crack in the wall. You get a sense of the unfathomable hardship families sustained when yet another child dies at birth or of hunger or when there is not enough food or fuel to keep the family fed and warm through yet another cold prairie winter.

Since I live on the prairie and know what it is like to be out in the elements in severe winter conditions, I know that you dare not tempt the weather.  Minutes in sub zero weather can freeze the skin.   I realize how blessed I am to be a prairie woman of today, to have even the simplest things like heavy, well-made coats and boots, hats and gloves. Even the homespun wool that was worn back in the late 1800s was a poor covering in comparison with the materials we have today (thinsulate, gortex, tight weave woolens).  Just to have a wood floor off the bare ground was a great comfort to a homemaker back then. 

I was a bit frustrated with the author's opinion at the end of the book: As whites flee to the cities and coasts, Native Americans and the bison that sustained them for thousands of years are returning. Indian and buffalo populations have now reached levels that the region has not seen since the 1870's. The white farmers and townspeople who remain would shun you for daring to say it, but in large stretches of prairie it's beginning to look like European agricultural settlement is a completed chapter of history. 'It's time for us to acknowledge one of America'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 lives and immeasurable heartbreak: the settlement of the Great Plains.' 

It is true that there are fewer and fewer folks making their living off the prairie now. Part of it is due to the fact that it is hard work to make a living off land that is unpredictable (drought, blizzard, hail, grasshoppers) but it is also due to the fact that there are easier ways to make money than living off the land. Farmers and ranchers today are also much more efficient at producing crops and livestock than ever before and it takes less man power than it did back in 1888 due to technology and science. Laskin's view that there are more buffalo now on the plains is true, but most small herds are here because some ranchers think there might be a market for them and they raise them as they would cattle. Also, some state parks run buffalo for tourism and for profit. I don't see many Native Americans out here on prairie ranches though -- at least where I live.  There are some, but I do not know of the statistics that would show a trend.  I'm not sure where Laskin gets his information since his sources don't list anything except the Kristof article quoted above.

I really like these types of books -- pioneers, homesteaders, people who lived through great hardship and against great odds. Reading this book makes me want to revisit the Bess Streeter Aldrich books once again. She and her forefathers and foremothers actually lived on the Great Plains of Nebraska, unlike Mr. Laskin who hails from Oregon. (nothing against Oregonians)  I appreciate Bess Streeter Aldrich's views of prairie living from a woman's perspective, much like Elinore Pruitt-Stewart's book Letters of a Woman Homesteader who lived and homesteaded in Wyoming.   We women have a different set of worries and concerns than our men.

All in all, I recommend The Children's Blizzard.  I felt a real connection to the people of the plains.  I was just a bit peeved by the "Aftermath" chapter when the author decided to get his opinion in instead of just giving his readers the facts, but it is his book, after all.


  1. Oooh, it sounds like a wonderful book Jody! I love books about the pioneers too. And like you, I suspect I'd be a bit peeved at that last bit -- that sort of thing makes me crazy!

  2. Thanks for the review...I think about my pioneer ancestors a lot..I don't know how they did it! I guess for the love of religious freedom. I am so thankful for them, I wouldn't have what I have now if not for what they gave! Come say hi :D

  3. Fascinating. I must order it for my mother. She loves homesteader, pioneer books and has quite a collection. She sent them all to me once and I feasted on them, one after another. My favorite Little House book: The Long Winter. Great post!

  4. I have been fascinated with the early homesteaders for a long time, and I am going to try to get these books from our library. I did read a fiction account of the blizzard that killed so many; I didn't realize it was based on fact.

    With everything I learn about these settlers, I admire their grit and determination all the more.

  5. This is interesting and sounds like a book I'd really enjoy.

    Yesterday morning we had our own little blizzard. :) 4 inches and nearly every church in the area closed. Our little church had services and so had visitors, those who wanted to venture out. I visited with one man who said his dad was a Northern American Baptist. Talking about this led to him telling me his family all came over from German, actually Russia. His great Grandfather at age 13 hopped a ship and came alone. No other family. Stalin gave the option leave the land they were working in Russia and move back to Germany or go to a labor camp....he chose to come to America alone.

    Another interesting tidbit. The German Baptists changed their name to Northern American Baptists during World War II.

    I'll be looking for your book. Thanks for the review.

  6. Oh this looks interesting, especially since dh's family homesteaded in western ND in those days. I have the library on my errand run this week & I'll look for it.

    BTW,on Saturday I found a lovely used copy of "A Lantern in Her Hand" by BSA to replace the old paperback that was misplaced.
    THank you for sharing!

  7. Happy New Year, Jody!

    I enjoy homesteading/pioneer books, too--in fact, I return to the Little House books quite often. I loved Letters of a Woman Homesteader. Funny, because I'm not physically courageous myself (I don't camp, for instance, though I'm married to a serious outdoors guy). I think I live vicariously through the pioneers. Like you, I particularly like women's stories.

    Sounds like an interesting book--thanks for the review!


  8. Hi Jody! I ordered the book and had it delivered to me so I can read it before I send it on to my mom. Thank you for a great suggestion!

  9. This sounds very intersting, I will check it out. Thank you xoxox Clarice

  10. As the author of The Children's Blizzard, I'd like to thank you for this lovely, thoughtful blog post. I've gotten a lot of comments on that Kristof quote -- I certainly didn't intend this passage as a slap at families who have endured on the prairie, but rather as a tribute to their endurance. Hard place to live, but it instills great pride and toughness. I have a new book coming out in March about the immigrant experience in the First World War -- Thanks again!

  11. I,too, read that book and it is sooo sad...
    Can not imagine how they lived and survived all the elements...they were truly strong people.


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