Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin


The Children's Blizzard is historical fiction based on a tragic natural disaster that happened on January 12, 1888 in Nebraska. That blizzard, called The Schoolhouse Blizzard in some records, was previously written about in David Laskin's non-fiction book of the same name. I read Laskin's book when it was published in 2004 and was fascinated by this natural disaster that I'd never heard of before. 

This is a fictionalized story of that day in 1888. The characters--Raina and Gerda, Anette, Fredrik, Tor-they are based on some of the actual students and teachers that survived the blizzard. 

It's January 12, 1888. A strangely warm (40 degrees!) day on the Nebraska prairies. People took advantage of the mild weather to make trips to town from their homesteads for supplies. Students walked to school without their usual heavy coats and gloves. For most, it was a pretty short walk-maybe 15 minutes from their homes to the schoolhouses. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and no one had any idea what was brewing. This was before there was a national weather service. Most pioneers on the prairie who lived there long enough could tell when the weather was going to change; however, this odd weather happening showed no signs of approach until it was too late. 

Raina is sixteen and teaching her first year in a schoolhouse in rural Nebraska. She's still a bit unsure of herself (after all, the oldest student-Tor-is only a year younger than her) and is miserable. She's boarding with a family and the husband is mooning over her. Anna Pedersen, the wife, is hostile and watching their every move. Raina, flattered by the attention, is also uncomfortable and trapped in the situation. Little Anette also lives with the Pedersens. Her mother literally sold her to the Pedersen family as a servant. Anna also doesn't like Anette, and keeps the little girl working day and night, with only a break to attend school. 

Gerda, Raina's sister, is also a schoolteacher some miles away. She's older, and the bright star of her family. Gerda has a beau named Tiny, and she's arranged with him to pick her up from school midday so they have some time together in secret. She's dismissing school early so she can be with her beau.

The storm suddenly comes out of nowhere, and it's terrifying. Huge black clouds sweep down, the temperature drops and the blizzard begins. Gerda, just at that time dismissing her students, laughingly tells the kids to run fast to get home and outrun the storm. She hops into Tiny's sleigh with two other small students, and away they go. Her decision will haunt her the rest of her life. 

Raina is caught at the schoolhouse with her students. Anette flees the schoolhouse to run home, fearful of Mrs. Pedersen's anger if she doesn't come home. Little Fredrik follows Anette. Raina can't find them-they are gone into the blizzard. Thinking to stay in the schoolhouse, that quickly ends when windows are smashed and the stove goes out. It's obvious the children will freeze to death if they stay, so Raina makes the decision to take the children out into the blizzard to the nearest homestead--a place that on a normal day can be seen from the schoolhouse steps. 

Most of the novel is about that dark day, as Anette and Fredrik, Raina, Tor, the school children, and Gerda struggle to survive the blizzard. Brutal conditions, unable to see two steps in front of them--just walking a short way off the usual paths would mean certain death on the prairie. Will they all find their way to safety?

This novel doesn't stop at the blizzard, but examines the following days and years after the blizzard. The prairie had an almost mystical pull for so many people. So much hard, back breaking work that could be wiped out with one bad storm, a dry summer, grasshoppers. A brutal existence that not all could handle. People loved it and hated it all at the same time. 

Who are the heroes? Who survives? How do they move on with life after such a horrific experience? You'll have to read to find out. 

It's a quick read, and you will be on the edge of your seat. Living in the Midwest-yes, we've had some pretty darn cold days and nights. I can't imagine a blizzard of this magnitude and being out in it inadequately dressed, with no modern conveniences to help me find my way to safety. 

This novel is available in the United States on Tuesday, January 12th (the 133rd anniversary of the blizzard!). It will be available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

I would recommend reading David Laskin's nonfiction book The Children's Blizzard if you want more in-depth information and photos. 

A big thank you to Edelweiss and Random House for providing me with an advanced ebook. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel about the great Blizzard of 1888. Strong characters and plenty of nail biting moments! 

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