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The Children's Blizzard Paperback – October 11, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 1888, a sudden, violent blizzard swept across the American plains, killing hundreds of people, many of them children on their way home from school. As Laskin (Partisans) writes in this gripping chronicle of meteorological chance and human folly and error, the School Children's Blizzard, as it came to be known, was "a clean, fine blade through the history of the prairie," a turning point in the minds of the most steadfast settlers: by the turn of the 20th century, 60% of pioneer families had left the plains. Laskin shows how portions of Minnesota, Nebraska and the Dakotas, heavily promoted by railroads and speculators, represented "land, freedom, hope" for thousands of impoverished European immigrants—particularly Germans and Scandinavians—who instead found an unpredictable, sometimes brutal environment, a "land they loved but didn't really understand." Their stories of bitter struggle in the blizzard, which Laskin relates via survivors' accounts and a novelistic imagination, are consistently affecting. And Laskin's careful consideration of the inefficiencies of the army's inexpert weather service and his chronicle of the storm's aftermath in the papers (differences in death counts provoked a national "unseemly brawl") add to this rewarding read.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–That 1888 January day on the northern plains was bright and warm–the first mild weather in several weeks–leading many children to attend school without coats, boots, hats, or mittens. A number of students were caught in the sudden storm that hit later that day. Laskin details this event–the worst blizzard anyone in those parts ever encountered. It not only took the lives of hundreds of settlers, but also formed a significant crack in the westward movement and helped to cause a movement out. The author introduces five pioneer families, beginning with why they left the old country. The personalization of these settlers breathes life into this history and holds readers spellbound. Laskin devotes several chapters to the meteorology of storms, especially this one, and the politics and history of the Army Signal Corps, which ran a fledgling weather service at the time. Readers are then led through the storm and its effects on the featured families as well as on many others. Some teachers kept students at school, burning desks to stay warm overnight; some tried to keep students in but were unsuccessful; and some led them out, not realizing how dangerous it was. A few children and adults who got lost somehow managed to survive covered by snow, then died when they got to their feet in the morning. Laskin explains why, and delves into other effects of prolonged exposure to cold. A gripping story, well told.–Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 3rd edition (October 11, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060520760
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060520762
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (227 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,514 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Laskin was born in New York in 1953 and educated at Harvard College and New College, Oxford. For the past twenty-five years, Laskin has written books and articles on a wide range of subjects including history, weather, travel, gardens and the natural world. His most recent book, The Children's Blizzard, won the Washington State Book Award and the Midwest Booksellers' Choice Award for Nonfiction. Laskin's other titles include Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather, Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals, A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship and Influence, and Artists in their Gardens (co-authored with Valerie Easton). A frequent contributor to The New York Times Travel Section, Laskin also writes for the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, and Seattle Metropolitan. He and his wife Kate O'Neill, the parents of three grown daughters, live in Seattle with their two sweet old dogs.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Dave Schwinghammer VINE VOICE on February 3, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
David Laskin sets up the story of the January 12, 1888, blizzard well. He provides the back story of the Mennonite and Norwegian immigrants, the valiant teachers and students, and the Civil War veteran, whose daughter took refuge in a haystack during the storm. The reader learns to care about the participants before the blizzard starts and there is gut-wrenching suspense as the victims head out into the storm. Which of them will survive? Will any of them survive?

The main characters are the Schweizers, Swiss-German Mennonites who had emigrated to America from the Ukraine, the Rollags from Norway, and Walter Allen, a mischievous little boy who adds comic relief to an otherwise tragic story.

The day of the blizzard starts off unusually warm and the kids on their way to school and the farmers working in the fields aren't dressed properly. The temperature drops precipitously and the snow isn't ordinary slow; it's more like blinding sleet.

Laskin is also a weather geek; he provides more than we want to know about the cause of this "Storm of the Century." He provides info about lows and highs, jet streams and jet streaks (this little bugger is a main culprit), fronts, and St. Elmo's Fire. He also shows how the Signal Corps weathermen bungled the forecast. It's all very informative but we want to know what happened to the Schweizer children and Will Allen. An especially riveting scene is when Laskin explains hypothermia, using the Schweizer boys as an example.
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101 of 116 people found the following review helpful By John Matlock on November 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
We forget sometimes just how vicious nature can be. In hurricanes this year, in 1991's Perfect Storm, the tri-State Tornado in 1925, and the Children's Blizzard of 1888 nature showed what it can do. Of these disasters, the Children's Blizzard is the least well known. Finally we have a book that chronicles this incident.

January 12, 1888 was a nice balmy day, the first after a fairly hard few weeks. Children went off to school without coats and gloves, farmers went out to work on projects they had been putting off.

Then the cold front came through. In three minutes the temperature dropped 18 degrees. A vicious wind blowing heavy snow caused a whiteout that dropped visibility to near zero. By midnight the windhill was down to 40 below zero. By morning (Friday the thirteenth) some 500 people were dead, many of them children trying to get home from school.

1888 was, by our standards, a primative time. There were certainly no satellite imagery put on television by the local weather forecaster. To be sure, there was some indication of a drop in temperature and snow at the weather forecasting office, but extremely limited communications prevented this warning from being widely circulated.

Well researched, well written, this is a book for reading in front of the fire in a strongly built house (the storm ripped the roof off of many schools, exposing the inside to the full fury of the storm) maybe with a hot buttered rum at hand.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on December 27, 2006
Format: Paperback
I bought this book at the airport when I needed reading material, and it was a wonderful surprise! I can't believe that I'd never heard of it before! I'm an avid nonfiction reader, and I love survival/adventure stories like 'The Worst Journey in the World,' 'Into Thin Air,' 'The Wreck of the Medusa,' and 'The Whaleship Essex.' 'The Children's Blizzard' has all the elements to make it a genre classic!

The first third of the book is spent putting the storm into historical, cultural, and scientific context, and readers who want fast action may become impatient. The effect of all this discussion is cumulative, however. The book--and the suspense--really sneaks up on you; I read each chapter with a steadily growing sense of dismay and fear. By the time the snow started falling, I was enthralled.

The historical information also serves to humanize--and better dramatize--the event. Mr. Laskin treats the immigrant pioneers, and their hardships, with dignity and respect. I never felt that the author was exploiting the tragedy for artistic or professional purposes. The subjects are difficult for modern readers to relate to--profoundly religious, parochial, Scandinavian, agrarian, (mostly) poor. Many writers would be tempted to either romanticize or condescend them. Laskin tries to let them speak for themselves.

Stylistically, I found the book to be very well-written. The language is clear, precise, and elegant.

Lastly, some reviewers found the scientific explanation of the storm and the history of weather forecasting to be tedious, but I enjoyed all of it! It's always nice when an author gives his/her audience credit for having a brain. I love books that I can learn things from, and this book was full of informative treats! Mr. Laskin makes the science very accessible to the layperson.

'The Children's Blizzard' is a gem!
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By K. L Sadler VINE VOICE on May 30, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book was a traumatic read for me for several reasons. First off, my family is from Norway and some of them came over to the United States at this time period and at the turn of the century. They came for the same reasons that Laskin mentioned in his book: Norway is gorgeous, but it's lands were being used without the knowledge we have today of the need to replenish and rest the land. My ancestors came because of the promise of jobs, and of freedom, and of better lives for their children.

The fact that so many children were caught in this unexpected blizzard is the other reason this was hard for me to read. All of those mothers who have children and grandchildren, can place themselves in the place of the mothers whose children were lost in this very strange storm. I cannot imagine the agony of these mothers, and of the teachers who did what they thought was best for the children. It's easy in hindsight to say that the teachers should have done 'this', and that the weather forecasters were lax in their jobs...but so little was known not just of the vagaries of weather in that part of the United States, but how to get this information to those who needed it most. Even had the weather forecasters predicted this storm 24 hours before it happened, the chances that it would have reached the towns and individuals on the Dakota praries in time to prevent the deaths were slim at best.

I read this book in less than two days, and I found it as mesmerizing as "Issac's Storm", which I also read years ago. Perhaps it's because my own family were Norwegian and pioneers, though I don't think they were caught in this as they settled in Minnesota and Illinois and Utah.

There was one light note in this book that cracked me up.
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