January 12, 1888 dawned unseasonably warm in the Dakota Territory. Happy to escape the unrelenting winter cold, people shed their heavy coats and boots and sent their children to school in light jackets. But the weather takes a sudden and deadly turn and by lunchtime a massive blizzard has arrived, causing temperatures to plummet, winds to howl and heavy snow erasing visibility. Anyone caught outside – or in an isolated schoolhouse – was in trouble as shown in Melanie Benjamin’s The Children’s Blizzard.
The Dakota Territories were sparsely populated, and many of the settlers were recent immigrants who had been lured to the area by unrealistic descriptions of a bountiful land. They were ill-equipped to face the unrelenting heat and drought of the summer, and the cold and snow of the winter. Many left, returning to their home country as soon as they could scrape together the money for a train ticket, but some stayed and struggled to create a community. They built homes and farms and then school houses. These schools were usually isolated in the country, poorly insulated and hastily built plus most of the teachers were very young, just 16 or 17 years old.
The storm arrived with no warning and with shocking suddenness. It seemed as if it went from balmy springtime weather to life-threatening snow and cold in a matter of minutes. Against these terrible odds and with no way to communicate with the nearest farms or town, the teachers had to make an impossible decision. Stay in the un-insulated school house with little to no fuel for the woodstove? Or send the children home, most without winter clothing, into a storm that swallowed them up as soon as they stepped out the door?
The Children’s Blizzard is based on real events when 235 people died, many of them children (it’s also called the Schoolhouse Blizzard). Benjamin has based her book on historical records and on the stories of survivors. She readily captures the fear and uncertainty and the blinding grief of parents and community.
If you are taking part in the Online Reading Challenge this year, this book is a good choice for our October theme of extreme weather and climate change.