In January 1888, a sudden, violent blizzard, later to be known as the School Children's Blizzard, swept across the American plains. The storm killed hundreds of people, many of them children on their way home from school. The story of this fast moving, intense storm and details of the early national storm warning system are chronicled in David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard. Blending survivors' accounts with the narrative of storm's impacts, Laskin relates the gripping story of an epic prairie snowstorm on the American frontier through the stories of five families who were forever changed that day.
There are actually two frontiers covered in The Children's Blizzard. The first and obvious are those lands of the American Plains portions of Minnesota, Nebraska and the Dakotas heavily promoted by the railroads and speculators as "land, freedom, hope" to thousands of impoverished European immigrants. But it is also the story of another frontier, that of weather forecasting and storm warnings by the American government for the public when meteorological knowledge and the rapid dissemination of information by telegraph were just beginning to take form. However, all was not as it seemed. The immigrants instead found an unpredictable, sometimes brutal, environment, not the least of which came from the extremes of weather. And the promise of weather forecasting and storm warnings hide inefficiencies of the army's bureaucratic weather service and a lax communication network. The two frontiers came tragically together in mid-January 1888 when a brutal blizzard rushed across the upper Plains, leaving some 500 dead, many being school children caught on the way home from school.
When I first started reading this splendid book, I thought the storm was the precursor of the Great Blizzard of 1888 that buried New York and New England. But then I realized that storm struck in March, and this was a tragic storm of which I had no knowledge. It is hard to imagine such a brutal winter weather event and the price paid by the rural families caught in its path. But to have it "hidden" in history, in part because it struck the sparsely populated upper Great Plains is a great oversight that Laskin ably rectifies.
Laskin weaves a fascinating historical and social story and yet still is able to incorporate good scientific explanations. I was amazed in his description of how people so quickly become disoriented in the storm's blowing snow. From a meteorologist's viewpoint, I was particularly pleased to read Laskin's description of the scalloping of a cold front. We tend toward the impression from the large scale weather maps that a front is a hard straight line rather than a zone of dance between air masses. (Perhaps the Bergen School's use of the term front helped promote that view, but I think it is instructive to see air masses interacting as a dance rather than a confrontation.)
If I have a quarrel with The Children's Blizzard, it is similar to one I had with Isaac's Storm, a tone using 20-20 hindsight judgement to place blame on the inadequacies of the fledgling weather service. Sure, the bureaucracy got in the way, and the experience/knowledge of most contemporary forecasters would be exceeded today by most high school weather buffs, but would a perfect forecast have made any difference? There was no CNN or Weather Channel or even local radio to fill the airways with warnings, and many of those affected by the storm would have had no way to receive those warnings posted they lived too far from town. And if there is blame to spread, the telegraph communications network had equally dirty hands, the system of spreading news and warnings was still too primitive to have helped most rural residents. That is my opinion, and it differs from the author's. Read The Children's Blizzard and decide for yourself.
I really enjoyed The Children's Blizzard. The book is every bit as gripping and tragic as Isaac's Storm. I highly recommend it and place it high on my list of possible Holiday or birthday gifts for 2004-5.
Weather Doctor's Book Review: The Children's Blizzard ©2004, Keith C. Heidorn. All Rights Reserved.
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