The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin

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.

Online Reading Challenge – October

Welcome to the October edition of our Online Reading Challenge! This month we’ll be reading about climate change and extreme weather events.

We’ve experienced a lot of bad weather throughout history, and recently there seems to be more frequent weather events. No matter how “civilized” and technologically advanced we become, nature is going to win in the end. And how weather affects us and our communities and our planet makes for interesting and thoughtful reading.

Our main title this month is Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. Tired of living on a failing farm and suffering oppressive poverty, bored housewife Dellarobia is headed for a secluded mountain cabin to  initiate what she expects will be a self-destructive affair.  Instead, she walks into something on the mountainside she cannot explain or understand: a forested valley filled with a lake of silent red fire that appears to her a miracle. In reality, the forest is ablaze with millions of butterflies. Their usual migratory route has been disrupted, and what looks to be a stunningly beautiful view is really an ominous sign, for the Appalachian winter could prove to be the demise of the species. Her discovery of this phenomenon ignites a media and religious firestorm that changes her life forever.

Also available as a playaway audio book and as an ebook.

Alternate titles include:

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson. September 8, 1900, began innocently in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. Even Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau, failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged by a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over 6,000 people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. This epic story of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads—driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. 

Also available as an ebook.

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin. Draws on oral histories of the Great Plains blizzard of 1888 to depict the experiences of two teachers, a servant, and a reporter who risk everything to protect the children of immigrant homesteaders.

Also available as an ebook, a book-on-CD and large print.

Look for these titles and many more on displays at each of our locations!