Wednesday 20 May 2015

The Children's Blizzard

Finished May 12
The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin

This fascinating slice of history looks at one of the worst storms ever recorded. The most devastation from the storm occurred on January 12, 1888 over the Dakota Territory, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa. and because the early part of the day had been warmer and nicer than many days previously. Deaths are estimated at between 250 and 500, and several survivors died later as a result of what happened to them in the storm. The name of the book is a reference to the large numbers of children who lost their lives, catching so many of them at school. Because of the warmer weather at the beginning of the day, many didn't have adequate clothing.
There is a small map included that shows the line of the storm across the area at three points in time: 6:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.
The first chapter covers the immigrants to this area of the country, showing their origins, their reasons for leaving their home countries, and the journeys they took to get there. Laskin focuses on some of the families here, Some were Germans, Mennonites from the Ukraine, often referred to as Schweizers due to their original origins in Switzerland. One group consisted of 53 families from several villages near each other, that began their journey in 1874. Another large group of immigrants were from Norway. These came in smaller groups, sometimes just a couple of people, with more members of the family following later. I found this interesting as my own ethnic background includes both these cultures.
The second chapter looks at the earlier trials the settlers were afflicted with, from plagues of grasshoppers and disease to earlier blizzards. Particular mention is made of a series of blizzards from January through April 1873, the Snow Winter of 1880-1881, and the Winter of Blue Snow (1886-87). It makes mention of some of the effects like towering snow features and the ice crystals that plugged the nostrils of cattle, killing them. This chapter also sets the scene for this blizzard: the sun dogs during the day and snow overnight on January 11th, and the sunny, warm, calm, foggy morning of January 12th.
Chapter 3 looks at the weather, tracing the storms roots back to Canada, and looking at the weather processes that led to the blizzard. We understand the high pressure that caused a high-amplitude ridge that preceded the storm.
The fourth chapter looks at the weather office newly setup up in Saint Paul the fall of 1887, and we understand that the signal office was part of the military and thus subject to the bureaucracy of military orders and hierarchy. First lieutenant Thomas Mayhew Woodruff was the signal officer for the office, but the office was created due to pressure from local civilians led by Professor Payne of the local university and director of the Minnesota State Weather Service since its inception in 1883. The politics involved in receiving and dispersing weather data through specific communication channels through this local disagreement was one factor in the large loss of life.
Chapter 5 discusses the cold front itself, how it moved, and what weather systems led to it. We learn that the idea of cold and warm fronts wasn't really understood until after World War I.
Chapter 6 tells of the arrival of the storm. This tells the story of individuals and groups of people as the storm hit. It moved in very quickly, and with so many people either outside or away from home, particularly children and teachers at school, difficult decisions had to be made around whether to shelter in place or try for somewhere safer.
Chapter 7 tells us of the nature of the storm, the huge amounts of electricity in the air as the storm began, and the denseness and small size of the mix of shattered snow crystals, ice pellets and water droplets that made it almost impossible to see, breathe, or move forward against the storm.
Chapter 8 goes into detail on the physiological reactions of those caught out in the storm, the body's natural reaction to the cold, wind, and damp that it faced. Again, we are given the stories of individuals and shown how they were slowly overcome by the intense weather.
The ninth chapter leads us into the following day, January 13th where people ventured from their refuges, either to continue their journey home, or to venture out to find those who hadn't returned. Again this tells individual tales of amazing survival, sudden death after surviving the storm itself, and the terrible frostbite that affected many.
Following this we see the further progression of the storm as it continued south, moving down through Texas and Louisiana and on to Mexico, reaching farther than nearly any recorded storms have before or since.
An interesting feature of the aftermath is the media reaction, particularly its focus on women survivors, teachers that saved their students, or tried desperately to, young women who lost limbs to frostbite after getting stuck outside. Laskin shows us the funerals, the lost livestock, the changes to the weather service that resulted, and what was found in the spring thaw that year.
My copy of the book also had an interview with the author about how he came to write this history and reactions from readers who had family that lived through it.
A wonderful, emotional, and eye-opening read.


  1. Crazy as it may sound, I totally want to read this book! Thanks for reviewing it. I'd never have known about it otherwise. :)

    1. I have a weakness for these microhistories. If you like them too try Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo. I loved it.

    2. The Great Molasses Flood!?! I'm definitely in for that book. Thanks. :)