When 20 degrees Fahrenheit feels downright balmy, you know frigid, unimaginable cold weather has been plaguing your prairie town. Such is the case of those living in the Dakota Territory (prior to the Dakotas becoming states), Montana, and Nebraska on January 12, 1888, when one of the most brutal blizzards in American history decided to burst into existence, killing and maiming scores of people, many of whom were children and/or school teachers. Last year, I read Sebastian Junger’s 1997 book, The Perfect Storm, about the dangers of traversing the ocean when a dangerous storm hits; David Laskin’s 2004 book, The Children’s Blizzard, could have alternatively been titled, The Perfect Storm, if it wasn’t already taken. I’m not a meterologist by any stretch of the imagination, and even though Laskin tries to make it simple for the layperson (me), it still goes over my head, but from what I did gather, the storm that befell many a Norwegian and Ukrainian immigrant in 1888, was tantamount to a “perfect storm”: perfect conditions to create a frighteningly cold blizzard, and it came at a time when everyone’s defenses were down, hence the aforementioned balmy weather. After being hit with 20 degree below 0 temperatures, the weather turned “balmy” on January 12, 1888, and rose nearly 40 degrees. By comparison then, it was balmy, and the children were excited to go off to school, often with less protective clothing than they normally would have worn. By the afternoon, however, the weather changed dramatically, dropped far more than 40 degrees, and pelted the area with ice crystals, wind that approached 60 miles per hour, and blizzard conditions that genuinely made it difficult to tell your hand apart from a cow’s hoof.
As the blurb on the book from Entertainment Weekly notes, Laskin’s book does indeed read like a thriller. He tells the story of the blizzard from the perspective of the Norwegians and Ukrainians betting their fortunes on the promise of America and the open prairie land, and from the perspective of the Signal Corps, the Army soldiers known as “indications officers” tasked with tracking and forecasting the weather, and importantly, notifying via encoded telegrams (cheaper to send that way) the states within their particular area of focus. I couldn’t help but be taken aback by how 135 years later, the similarities are striking with the plight of the immigrants in this book to the immigrants of today: immigrants seeking a better life in America, whether they’re running from poverty or oppression, the first generation of immigrants ashore willing to rough it out for their children, living in sod houses with dirt floors, and relying upon the network of immigrants previously established to help establish themselves. They weren’t allowed to speak their native German in the schools, and the Norwegians had to Americanize their names to make pronunciation easier. The only major difference today is the legal apparatus that makes it far more difficult to come here and thrive here.
I can’t overstate how awe-inspiring I find immigrants then (and now) to be, who put their meager fortunes into the promise of America, risked it all (and in some cases, died in a prairie blizzard), some of whom neve even saw a train before, and made something of themselves once they got here, often with large families and myriad tragedies therein (children dying on the way over or in birth).
Trying to make something of yourself on the expansive Great Plains of the Dakota Territory, Nebraska, and Montana proved difficult though, with regular prairie fires destroying your crops, winters killing your cattle and horses, and … deadly grasshoppers?! I didn’t know grasshoppers could be so invasive and killer, but they came like locusts to destroy the crops of these bootstrapping immigrant farmers. And it wasn’t exactly an easy-going time for the children, either. Something you have to keep in mind with 19th century America (and the Western world more broadly) is that children didn’t have what we think of as a childhood in the modern world. They went to school, sure, albeit a one (or maybe two!)-room schoolhouse, where the teacher might be a mere teenager or an adult, but not much better educated than their students were, but otherwise, children as young as 10, and even younger, were expected to help farm, mind the cattle, and pitch in around the house. That is why some of the children would die in the January 12, 1888 blizzard, because they were doing family chores to take advantage of the “balmy” weather.
As I said, I did find trying to understand weather and weather patterns difficult, but fascinating, anyhow, and especially interesting was the nascent science of meteorology as explained by Laskin. Simply put, the science in the late 19th century wasn’t quite there yet and wouldn’t be for at least another nearly half century. More than that, the “indications officers” and the Army bureaucracy more broadly, hadn’t yet realized the potential and power of marrying science with the budding technology of the time, aka the telegraph and the train (as more and more railroads were laid down in the Western parts of the United States; a lot of the towns that sprung up in the Dakota Territory and elsewhere literally sprung up around these railroad stops). Or to put it as Laskin does when talking about one of these indications officers, Thomas Mayhew Woodruff, 39-years-old, and a Union veteran, “Even with a rooftop bustling with instruments and the all-important telegraph wires connecting him to the national gird, what Woodruff saw when he looked out from his office at the Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce building was more a mirror of his own mind than a window on reality.” All of that is to say, bureaucratic forces and shortsightedness of the time, as well as the simple fact of science not being where it could have been, along with bad luck and timing, created the “perfect storm” for the January 12, 1888 blizzard.
Throughout the book, Laskin introduces us to a number of interesting characters, some of whom are lionized by the newspapers of the time as heroines of the blizzard; I was particularly moved by the story of Will Allen saving his 8-year-old brother, Walter Allen, and we later learn Walter Allen lived into his 90s. That’s the other thing: When it comes to extreme weather like this, again, so much relies upon luck and timing, and it’s impossible to say why one body will survive the cold environment and another won’t. But Walter did, thanks to his brother. But there are unlucky ones, who did die, and the stories are tragic, if beautiful in a somber way, because the older sibling died with the younger sibling wrapped in their arms. They tried.
Laskin’s depictions of how brutal, fast, and overwhelming the onslaught from the blizzard was is nothing short of horrific, and indeed, something you could read in a body horror book. For example, the way the ice would freeze your face so bad and instinctively, you’d try to wipe the ice off your face with your glove, but instead of pulling away ice, you’d pull away your face skin. Or the amputations due to the frostbite. Or the utterly terrifying way your body slowly dies, despite its best efforts to keep you alive, due to extreme hypothermia, such as the oddity of paradoxical undressing (Google it). It’s astounding to me how many people survived in those brutal conditions, often for hours and hours until help came, with nothing better to keep them warm and “safe” from the conditions than a haystack (yes).
One of the most otherworldly images Laskin evokes is that of Saint Elmo’s fire. Basically, the pressure and the cold/warm air going on at the same time seems to create dangerous electrical charges in the air. Laskin then states, to explain how desperate and bleak the situation on January 12, 1888, had become, “It was after God withdrew His finger that the film of cold air pooled and deepened and the temperatures over the prairie began to plunge in earnest.”
I felt cold reading this book, but also “warm” in the sense of a.) the beautiful story of the immigrants coming here for a better future, even if that future turned out, in many ways, to be challenging; b.) the heroics of those who saved others and survived; and c.) I find beauty in the stubbornness of humans. After the blizzard and the major metropolitan newspapers (New York City and Chicago) began reporting on the death toll, a bitter journalism fight began between the big city papers and the local dailies over the death toll. In other words, the locals didn’t want people to think the Great Plains were an uninhabitable death trap, and they thought the Eastern papers were portraying the blizzard that way (again, nothing we fight about today is new). That fight aside, obviously, people kept living there! In fact, Laskin for his book interviewed the descendants of those central to the 1888 blizzard, which both reflects the human stubbornness I’m talking about, and also, how dang young the United States really is as a country.
Laskin’s book is a must-read because far from only being some body horror retelling of a terrible weather incident 135 years ago, it is a story about late 19th century America trying to find her footing in the blizzard of a rapidly changing world and the immigrants who hoped to be part of that procession.