Review: The Children’s Blizzard

This image shows the front cover, which actually does have that cool ragged edge on the right

A book review seems like a great way to resume blogging regularly. At least it does now, so I’m going to write this before I change my mind.

The short prologue to David Laskin’s 2004 book sets the scene — on a January afternoon in 1888, a devastating and swift blizzard swept down the Dakota Territory and reached into the states of Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa. Hundreds of people were killed, many of them children walking home from school, the latter toll giving name to this natural disaster.

These opening pages are followed by a lengthy account of the settlers who populated the upper Midwest in the wake of the post-Civil War Homestead Acts. The meteorological conditions that produced the blizzard are then described with the detail and rhetoric of a scientific report; similar attention is given to the weather forecasting system of the era, which was run largely by the federal government, prone to bureaucratic in-fighting and inefficiency, and failed to give timely warning of the January 1888 storm. The blizzard does not strike until nearly half-way through the book, and while these opening chapters are rich with information (learning about the Fenian Raids of the 1860s was fascinating, even though they had nothing to do with the book’s topic), the pace at times can be ponderous.

But Laskin’s prose picks up momentum when the blizzard sweeps down from the Canadian Rockies, and people literally start running for their lives. The tales of miraculous survival are riveting, and the largely imagined depictions of fatal last steps are given the appropriate amount of pathos. Among the memorable stories is that of eight-year-old Walter Allen, who was picked up along with his school mates by a rescue team at the blizzard’s outset; remembering a cherished bottle he had left behind, Walter ran back into the schoolhouse — and faced an impassible wall of cold wind and snow when he ran back outside. (Spoiler alert: hours later, Walter’s older brother joins a rescue team which somehow finds him.) Laskin’s attention to detail does not falter in this section, as he digresses (for brief moments only, fortunately) on topics such as rewarming shock, a condition that can kill survivors of hypothermia.

Laskin’s writing style is professional and direct, yet he has some memorable passages. He describes the cold air mass accompanying the blizzard as “a glacier of sluggish gas.” An extended explanation of extreme cold’s effect on the body is also noteworthy:

It’s hard to find vocabulary for weather this cold. The senses become first sharp and then dulled. Objects etch themselves with hyperclarity on the dense air, but it’s hard to keep your eyes open to look at them steadily… After a breath or two, ice builds up on the hairs lining your nasal passages and the clear film bathing your eyeballs thickens… A dozen paces from the door, your throat begins to feel raw, your lips dry and crack, tears sting the corners of your eyes. The cold becomes at once a knife and, paradoxically, a flame, cutting and scorching exposed skin.

Quality writing such as this, combined with Laskin’s meticulous research, makes “The Children’s Blizzard” a solid work of non-fiction.