I read David Laskin’s true account, The Children’s Blizzard, some time ago, so I was interested when Melanie Benjamin’s novel by the same name was announced as the 2021 One Book South Dakota. Benjamin takes the true story and tells it through fictional characters, two sisters who are schoolteachers. When the blizzard hits and the main characters, like many actual school teachers during that storm, have to choose between trying to flee their one-room schoolhouses and get their students to safety, or hunker down with what little food and firewood they had. Each sister reacts differently, resulting in very different outcomes.
More than 200 people died in the blizzard, which ravaged Dakota Territory on January 12, 1888. These were seasoned homesteaders who were quite used to harsh Midwest winters, but what took everyone off guard was the sunny weather that morning and the extreme speed of that particular storm. It hit mid-day as well so students had already made the long trek on foot or horseback to their primitive school houses.
(Image from amazon.com)
Both books also remind us of the extreme hardships of early homesteaders in the Midwest, especially during a natural disaster. Schools had very few supplies, such as enough firewood, and teachers were usually very young and inexperienced. Mothers who had already lost babies and young children during childbirth or to disease found themselves mourning yet again.
I definitely recommend reading both books. Laskin’s book is a fascinating account of how homesteaders arrived in Dakota Territory from Europe and the many struggles they faced. He also writes about the meteorological aspect of the blizzard and why it caught so many people off-guard. Benjamin’s book brings that story to life through interesting characters who are very human in what drives their decisions, both good and bad, when faced with hardship.