2005 nonfiction finalist

David Laskin | The Children's Blizzard

Photo of authorAbout the author
David Laskin is the author of four previous books, including Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals and Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather, and the coauthor of Artists in Their Gardens. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Preservation, and Smithsonian. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

About the book
After several weeks of bitter cold, January 12, 1888, began as an exceptionally warm and inviting winter day on the Great Plains. Farmers were already out tending to their fields as boys and girls raced to school with no coats or gloves. Around morning recess in the Dakotas and on the bell of afternoon dismissal in Nebraska, the young pupils and their teachers were suddenly assaulted by an explosion of hurricane-force winds and torrential snow. By midnight, windchills had plummeted to 40 below zero. By the dawn of Friday the thirteenth, up to 500 people lay dead on the stark, white prairie. Too many of the victims were school children killed while trying to find their way home.

David Laskin tells the story of this ferocious storm and its aftershocks in The Children's Blizzard (Harper Perennial; October 11, 2005). Drawing on contemporary newspaper accounts and the emotional eyewitness accounts of German, Scandinavian, and Ukrainian immigrant settlers who survived, Laskin presents an intimate portrait of a watershed event in the pioneer era. By bringing to life parents who lost children, children who lost siblings, and teachers who led their students to shelter—or to death—when the roofs blew off their one-room schoolhouses, he reveals how one capricious act of weather crushed many pioneers’ faith in the promised land.

“The blizzard literally froze a single day in time,” Laskin reflects. “It sent a clean, fine blade through the history of the prairie. It forced people to stop and look at their existences—the earth and sky they had staked their future on, the climate and environment they had brought their children to, the peculiar forces of nature and of nature’s God that determined whether they would live or die.”

Deftly interweaving the facts of history and meteorology with personal dramas, The Children's Blizzard unfolds the stories of close-knit immigrant families whose lives were tragically changed on January 12, 1888. Among many memorable men, women, and children, readers will meet:

- Lena Woebbecke, a fatherless German immigrant girl who was “farmed out” to relatives in Nebraska at age eleven, started school after the harvest, and tragically refused her teacher’s offer of shelter from the storm for fear of not getting home in time to do her afternoon chores.

- Etta Shattuck, a deeply religious teenage schoolteacher in Nebraska, who took shelter from the storm in a haystack, and sacrificed both her legs to frostbite.

- Three devout Mennonite couples who left the Ukraine for a new home in Dakota and their five sons who left school together and wandered blindly in the storm for hours before finally succumbing to exhaustion and hypothermia.

Between vivid slices of life and death, The Children's Blizzard gives a gripping, hour-by-hour account of the storm’s development and the desperate, botched attempts to track it. Two very different men come to light for their role in the disastrous consequences: Lieutenant Thomas M. Woodruff, the West Point Graduate who detected the first signs of the blizzard at the fledgling forecast office in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and his boss, General Adolphus Greely, the autocratic head of the War Department’s Signal Corps. As Laskin reveals, a combination of incompetence, military protocol, and his superior’s ego may have prevented Woodruff from taking bold action to alert the people of the Upper Midwest to do something to prepare for the coming “cold wave”—before it was too late. Full of deep understanding for the hard lives of the pioneers, amazement at the power of nature, and frustration over the fallibility of science and the helplessness of mere mortals, The Children's Blizzard cuts to the heart of the American heartland at a crossroads in our nation’s history. A Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Pick for the Holidays, and a selection of the Book of the Month Club, Literary Guild, and History Book Club, David Laskin’s heartbreaking and harrowing book will make readers think as they feel for each victim, survivor, and hero.

Critics / Reviews
"In The Children’s Blizzard, David Laskin deploys historical fact of the finest grain to tell the story of a monstrous blizzard that caught the settlers of the Great Plains utterly by surprise. Using the storm as a lens, Laskin captures the brutal, heartbreaking folly of this chapter in America’s history, and along the way delves into the freakish physics of extreme cold. This is a book best read with a fire roaring in the hearth and a blanket and box of tissues near at hand."  —Erik Larson, author of Isaac's Storm and The Devil in the White City

"The American prairie has its indelible epics -- the luck-charmed journey of Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail tales and travails -- and The Children’s Blizzard adds to our trove of western lore the nearly lost story of a mighty blow of nature. David Laskin’s telling of the immense 1888 blizzard that struck the homestead communities of the Dakotas and beyond is elegant in its research and eloquent in its recountings of prairie dwellers facing impossible weather. This is a haunting book about the odds stacked against the settlers of the American heartland."  —Ivan Doig, author of This House of Sky

"Engrossing. . . . . A suspenseful disaster narrative. . . . Laskin shrewdly takes a broad historical view."  —Kirkus Reviews

"An adroit, sensitive drama and a skillful addition to a popular genre. . . . A perceptive presentation, evoking lives unnoticed by history but for the tragedy of this storm."  —Booklist

"A gripping chronicle of meteorological chance and human folly and error. . . . Novelistic and consistently affecting. . . . A rewarding read."  —Publishers Weekly

"Terrifying and often vivid. . . . Laskin skillfully weaves together a clear report and explanation of the meteorological event with harrowing accounts of slow death, loss, and, survival. This book should be read by anyone wishing to fathom the terrible cost of settling that desolate, dangerous, and beautiful land."  —The Atlantic Monthly

"Laskin pulls no punches. . . . The Children’s Blizzard is a welcome contribution to the historical literature of American life and westward expansion."  —Chicago Sun-Times

"Unearthing the stories buried in a killer snow, David Laskin compellingly recounts a devastating 1888 snowstorm."  —The Seattle Times

"Heart-breaking. . . . This account of the 1888 blizzard that killed more than 100 children in the Great Plains reads like a thriller. . . . Laskin reminds us that the pioneer life wasn’t so much romantic as it was deadly."  —Entertainment Weekly

"In The Children’s Blizzard, Mr. Laskin has written a fascinating account of the day the wind finally did what it always promises to do on those bleak Dakota prairies. . . . Mr. Laskin has chosen his subject brilliantly, for something did change in that winter blast."  —The Wall Street Journal

"A terrifying but beautifully written book."  —The Washington Post

"Like a ride down a steep, icy hill on a toboggan, the story gathers speed. . . . Even though you know how the tragic story ends with its inevitable conclusion, it’s a tale to savor."  —The Des Moines Register

"David Laskin has produced a book at once terrifying and engrossing about the epoch blizzard that left an estimated 250 to 500 dead across the frigid plains of Nebraska and the Dakota Territory."  —The Lincoln Journal Star

"David Laskin gives us the complete story in all its fascinating, often harrowing detail. . . . He has contributed a vital addition to the lore of Western immigrant pioneering."  —Washington Post

"Laskin excels at making these Plains pioneers live again, whether they survived or succumbed to the storm. . . . This book about flatlands is sharp enough that the thoughts and failings of mountain climbers become crystal-clear."  —USA Today

"A tale of horror and heroism: gripping, terrifying, and definitely worth the read. . . . What makes The Children’s Blizzard amazing are the survival stories from people stranded in the sub-zero whiteout."  —Manchester Union Leader

"A heartrending tale. . . . With a flair for novelistic detail, Laskin brings many of these settlers back to life as he follows the fortunes of immigrant families. . . . Every page of the engrossing narrative explores the uncomfortable reality of human frailty when confronting insurmountable odds."  —Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Told through the awed, disbelieving eyes of storm victims. . . . The Children’s Blizzard recounts a poignant, heartbreaking chapter in American history. Laskin draws on firsthand accounts of the snowstorm to produce an intimate, human-scale tale of climatic cataclysm."  —Seattle Weekly