Tragedy on the Great Plains: The 1888 Children’s Blizzard

winter 2010, outside our back door

Weather humbles us and we’ve bowed to it frequently during the last several years. Hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, wind-whipped wildfires, blizzards and floods demolish our attempts to humanize our landscapes and keep ourselves safe. We can’t quite imagine, though, what it must have been like before our dopplers and satellites and well-educated, attractive weather forecasters on television (who are starting to look like 12-year-olds to Goodhusband and myself). Now we take for granted our 24-hr satellite channel devoted to weather. We can even follow it on our mobile phones.

A terrific thunderstorm with seventy-mile winds blasted our Little House on the Prairie last Saturday night. On surrounding farms and in town many tree limbs fell, some even blocking roads. West of us, the wind peeled back the roof of a large steel building. We lost our power for several hours, which always adds a dramatic touch to late night storms; there’s just something about that kerosene lamplight… I didn’t hear that anyone was injured and fortunately, the corn plants are yet too small to have suffered from the pebble-sized hail. We did gain a much needed one and a half inches of rain.

Dust storm, May 2012

It was a terribly dry winter here, as it was in many regions. Two weeks ago, after the funeral of one of Goodhusband’s dear friends, we experienced a dust storm that made us all shudder, as if it were the dirty Thirties again. Most of the people I know between 70 and 80 years old said they’ve never seen anything like it. I know I hadn’t. You can see it coming in my snapshot. The top part is cloud, but that dark roiling mass on the ground was prime Iowa topsoil in flight. As it surrounded me, I couldn’t see that nearby tree that’s still visible in the photo.

Storm Front, August 2009

In August, 2009, I captured this image of the leading edge of a thunderstorm, just north of our house. I knew the situation was serious as I drove home, when I saw a team of stormchasers setting up instruments on the highway at that very spot. But like the angel of death in Egypt, this one passed over without striking. 2011 was a banner, horrific year for tornadoes, though, across the Plains and in the South.

Yes, we all like to talk about the weather. As for reading about it, The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin, remains one of the most interesting and moving non-fiction books I’ve read. I’m a Great Plains and Western history and fiction lover, so this true story made my list years ago. It’s one I’ve lent out repeatedly, which may be why, when I looked for it today, I couldn’t find it on my bookshelf!

The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin

As Laskin describes it, “An evil genius could not have devised a more perfect battleground for clashing weather fronts than the prairies of North America. ” Yet, January 12, 1888 started out as a beautiful day on that battleground. Within 24 hours, the temperature dropped as much as 100 degrees and by the time that freak blizzard had swept through, approximately  235 people died. It’s undeniably tragic, but hard to grasp just by numbers. Laskin documents not only the meteorological event, but gives faces and personalities to the homesteaders and immigrants who gambled everything to settle the Plains, then paid the ultimate price. Even as he documents the weather monitoring and alert system at that time, he emphasizes the human element of failure and loss, particularly how humans can be so intelligent and courageous, yet so easily caught unaware.

It’s just the book to read, as our weather heats up into summer. If it gives you the urge to pack extra winter clothing in the trunk of your car now, so you don’t forget in October, console yourself. You’re not the only one…

The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin  2004  HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0060520752 (ISBN13: 9780060520755)

2 Comments

  1. I’ve always admired people who live in the plains. The weather there seems so catastrophic. This book sounds like a fascinating read. As a New Englander, the plains are as foreign to me as the desert. 🙂

  2. Kourtney, I can understand that. New England is even more foreign to me than the desert…I’ve spent time in New Mexico and love that, too. While our weather is dramatic sometimes, it builds camaraderie and provides for some amazing spectacles. I spent my childhood in Texas and Colorado, so my adult experiences with weather here in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin still amaze me. While I spent one winter in Poughkeepsie, NY, when I was about three years old, of course, I remember little of it, except that the snow drifts were over my head, which probably put them at 3 feet high. I studied Great Plains and Western literature in grad school and regional literature still is one of my favorite subjects. Have you considered how the place you live affects your writing?

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