A view of a building in the "Schoolchildren's Blizzard" of 1888

Melanie Benjamin’s “The Children’s Blizzard”

The Children’s Blizzard is a novelization of a real blizzard that hit the southern corner of what was then Dakota Territory and is now South Dakota and northern Nebraska in 1888.  It grabbed my attention as soon as I picked it up from the library shelf because, of course, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book The Long Winter is based on her experiences during the winter of 1880-1881 in the town of DeSmet, South Dakota, which is not far from the setting of this book. 

The Children’s Blizzard and The Long Winter

In an episode that mirrors the main action of this book, there is a chapter in The Long Winter in which Laura, her sister Carrie, and the rest of her classmates and teacher has to make their way home through the open prairie during a blizzard that is also based on events that really happened.

The 1888 blizzard was called “The Children’s Blizzard” because it hit around the time that school was being dismissed for the day so many children were caught in it, and died, while trying to make their way home.  Compounding the issue is the warm weather that preceded the storm on that January day, which meant that many people were actually wearing lighter clothing than they typically did in the winter.

Always Listen to Ma

I actually had difficulty accepting this detail, although it is based on historical fact, because a part of the chapter “Cap Garland” in The Long Winter, which has been anthologized into various reading and literature books, is the fact that Laura begs her mother to let her leave her woolen underclothes at home, because the morning of HER blizzard was also unseasonably warm.  Ma said no, because, she said, you are supposed to dress for the season, not the weather of the day. 

Good advice Ma, and something I’ve always remembered.  That’s also why I don’t go anywhere in my car in the winter without a coat, even if I don’t plan to be getting out of my car at all.  You never know.

Even though historical records show us that the Ingalls were underfunded and misinformed in their venture to start a farm in the Dakotas, they came to the land better prepared than many, since they had been living in remote Midwestern locations for years.  I have a hard time believing that Scandanavians would run around in the winter without adequate clothing, but there you are.  I guess European weather is more predictable.

At any rate, the story is fascinating, and Melanie Benjamin’s description of the characters attempting to make their way home is absolutely riveting.  I had difficulty putting the book down.  Of course, I’m from the south, so I don’t have much experience with heavy winter storms (although I do have experience with being underprepared), but this certainly felt real and easily conveyed the difference between these blizzards and ordinary snowstorms.

The Children’s Blizzard as a Literary Work

By the end, however, I was disappointed by The Children’s Blizzard as a novel. My feeling is that Benjamin stayed too close to the actual historical figures rather than fully fleshing out her characters, and she certainly didn’t put together a cohesive plot.  The latter part of the book is odd in that it reads like a work of nonfiction, but it isn’t.  I found myself not really caring what happens to the characters because she never adequately fleshes out the characters or the plot; it’s as if she is just reporting on what happened.

When I thought about this book, I realized that an irony of fiction is that for it to work, you have to flesh out motivations that seem real even though they are constructed, wheras in straight nonfiction, the author just needs to vividly describe what happens.  The author may decided to engage in some conjecture as to motivations or not…or even better, do some research into what the historical figures wrote or other evidence they left…but if you can’t do that, you don’t have to.  It’s enough that it HAPPENED.  But it’s not so great to leave your readers to plow through chapters in which the author doesn’t bother to put together her own story, in lieu of the reporting, and to be honest, it’s too bad because Benjamin is so good at description and really getting her reader in the moment.

So I would only recommend the first part of this book as reading material to you, but for me, I’m happy that I learned something about literature that I didn’t quite grasp before.

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