Now that our long Minnesota winter has finally ended (knock on wood), I think it’s safe to post this review.
My mom grew up on a farm in North Dakota during the Great Depression. I remember her telling me what life was like without central heat, boots without high-tech insulation, and woolen mittens that froze stiff with the cold. Imagine trudging out in the middle of the night in -30-degree temperatures to use the outhouse and then having to wipe yourself with pages of the Sears catalog.
I remember her telling me about terrifying blizzards that struck the flat landscape. One of the most epic blizzards in American history came to be known as the Schoolhouse Blizzard. It affected the states of Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, and the territories of South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. The storm came with no warning, and some accounts say the temperature fell nearly 100 degrees in just 24 hours. An estimated 235 people died because of the weather, most of whom were children making their way home from school.
Such is the subject of Melanie Benjamin’s latest novel, The Children’s Blizzard (January, 2021). After a brutal cold spell, the morning of January 12, 1888, dawned unusually mild, warm enough for the homesteaders of the Dakota Territory to venture out again and for their children to return to school without their heavy coats. At just the hour when most prairie schools were letting out for the day, a terrifying, fast-moving blizzard struck without warning. Schoolteachers as young as sixteen were suddenly faced with life and death decisions: keep the children inside to risk freezing to death when fuel ran out, or send them home, praying they would not get lost in the storm.
Based on actual oral histories of survivors, the novel follows the stories of sisters Raina and Gerda Olsen, both schoolteachers—one who becomes a hero of the storm, and one who finds herself ostracized in the aftermath. It is also the story of Anette Pedersen, a servant girl whose miraculous survival serves as a turning point in her life and touches the heart of Gavin Woodson, a newspaperman seeking redemption. It is Woodson and others like him who wrote the embellished news stories that lured immigrants across the sea to settle a pitiless land. Boosters needed immigrants to settle territories into states, and they didn’t care what lies they told them to get them there—or whose land it originally was.
I read this book safely tucked in my flannel sheets, listening to the winter wind howling outside my bedroom window. The experiences of the teachers and their young charges were harrowing and had me quickly turning the pages to read how they fared. The first half of the book was thrilling, in a driving by a car accident kind of way, but after the storm was over, so was much of my interest. The principal characters were unlikeable, and the narrative crept along at a snail’s pace. Many professional readers liked it more than I did, so don’t let that stop you from checking it out. 3.5 stars from me.