‘The Children’s Blizzard’

“The Children’s Blizzard” by David Laskin: It’s all weather, all the time, in the story of how the Great Plains’ greatest winter storm surprised and overwhelmed forecasters and farm families, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The blizzard of Jan. 12, 1888, was not a “feathery sifting of gossamer powder,” but a “frozen sandstorm” propelled by 40-mph winds blasting arctic air down from Canada. Men and livestock couldn’t stand up to its blinding fury, let alone the hundreds of children in Nebraska, the Dakota Territory and Minnesota who tried to make it home from country schoolhouses.

These were people who could find the 20-degree morning of Jan. 12 to be a balmy break from weeks of subzero weather, yet Laskin shows how unprepared they were for the storm that struck hours later and plunged temperatures dozens of degrees below zero. Laskin excels at making those Plains pioneers live again, whether they survived or succumbed to the storm. He takes us on their journeys from Norway and Ukraine to the Eden promised by railroad companies. He shows us the plagues they endured just to make it to 1888. He makes us understand why a woman would leave her young children, risking her life and theirs, just to save a cow. And he lets us appreciate the randomness of life and death on the range.

The portraits of the Army Signal Corps weather forecasters and observers are just as vivid but less interesting. Their cold-wave warnings were too late, and more concern for settlers and less for bureaucracy might have been in order. But the homesteaders were beyond the reach of communications rapid enough to make a difference.

Laskin is at his best when explaining weather and effects such as hypothermia. He deploys an army of analogies to make the killer cold understandable even to those of us who are ready to hibernate at 40 degrees.

Rating: Buy it. Reviewed by Michael Jacobs (originally appeared in USA TODAY)

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