Title: The Children's Blizzard
Author: Melanie Benjamin
Publication Information: Delacorte Press. 2021. 368 pages.
ISBN: 0399182284 / 978-0399182280
Opening Sentence: "They came on boats, on trains, great unceasing waves of them - the poor, the disenfranchised, the seekers, the dreamers."
Favorite Quote: "The Great Plains were immense enough to inspire the grandest, most foolish of dreams - but they were also vast enough that no one could ever explore every corner."
The Children's Blizzard is also known as the Schoolhouse or School children's Blizzard. It hit the plains states on January 12, 1888. "The blizzard, created when an enormous trough of cold air rushing in from the Arctic had met up with an equally enormous influx of warm, wet air from the gulf, gobbled up everything in its path. The collision generated a force of energy no one could remember seeing in their lifetimes, but that all would talk about with wonder until the day they died." The blizzard hit on an unseasonably warm day, and it hit suddenly at a time when many were at work and at school. In other words, there was no warning, and 235 lives were lost. "... those who experienced the storm would never forget it; they would pass the stories down from one generation to the next, and they wouldn't embellish them because they didn't need to."
This book tells a fictionalized account of this storm and its aftermath. It presents three views. One teacher let out school early, leaving the children to find their way home. One teacher kept her students together as best she could. A parent found his way to his daughter's school, determined to keep those in that school safe. The impact and repercussions of these decisions forever altered the course of their lives and the lives of those in their care.
Within the context of this storm, this book also paints a picture of a time and a place. It tells of the immigrant experience and the settler experience of people who left all they knew in search of a better life. It speaks of the treatment of Native Americans and the schooling available for their children. It speaks of the racial divides and the prejudices. It depicts the harshness of prairie life and the resilience and perseverance of those who settled this nation. This provides context and background, but it also means that there is lot going on in this book.
The second half of the book deals with the aftermath of the storm and goes in many different directions. Ultimately, this half ends up the story of women and the men in their lives. The personal stories of the women head in the direction of being attracted to, being duped by, longing for, and making decisions in reaction to men in their lives. The book even ends on a romantic note, with a romance born out of loss. That entire tone in the book seems not in line with the rest of the story. In a time and place where survival often relied on the strength of the women, this focus seems a disservice to the women.
Based on the title and timing, the theme of the book is the blizzard. Given the wide net the book casts, there are a lot of characters and stories. Overall, there is a bit too much going on. However, I truly appreciated learning about the blizzard and the historical context of the time.