The Children's Blizzard

The Children's Blizzard

by David Laskin

Paperback(Reprint)

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Overview

“David Laskin deploys historical fact of the finest grain to tell the story of a monstrous blizzard that caught the settlers of the Great Plains utterly by surprise. Using the storm as a lens, Laskin captures the brutal, heartbreaking folly of this chapter in America’s history, and along the way delves into the freakish physics of extreme cold. This is a book best read with a fire roaring in the hearth and a blanket and box of tissues near at hand.”  — Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City

Thousands of impoverished Northern European immigrants were promised that the prairie offered "land, freedom, and hope." The disastrous blizzard of 1888 revealed that their free homestead was not a paradise but a hard, unforgiving place governed by natural forces they neither understood nor controlled, and America’s heartland would never be the same.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060520762
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/11/2005
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 82,281
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

David Laskin is the author of The Children's Blizzard, winner of the Midwest Booksellers' Choice Award for nonfiction and the Washington State Book Award. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Smithsonian magazine. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

Read an Excerpt

The Children's Blizzard

Chapter One

Departures and Arrivals

Land, freedom, and hope. In the narrow stony valleys of Norway and the heavily taxed towns of Saxony and Westphalia, in Ukrainian villages bled by the recruiting officers of the czars and Bohemian farms that had been owned and tilled for generations by the same families, land, freedom, and hope meant much the same thing in the last quarter of the nineteenth century: America. Word had spread throughout Europe that there was land -- empty land, free land -- in the middle of the continent to the west. Land so flat and fertile and unencumbered that a family could plant as soon as they got there and harvest their first season. "Great prairies stretching out as far as one could see," wrote one Norwegian immigrant of the image that lured him and his wife and three sons to America in 1876, "with never a stone to gather up, a tree to cut down, or a stump to grub out -- the soil so black and rich that as somebody said, you had only 'to tickle it with a plow, and it would laugh with a beautiful harvest.'" As for the sky above this land, there was no need to worry. Rain, they were promised, would fall abundantly and at just the right times. Winters were bright and bracing, snowfalls light and quick to melt. "Indeed, it may be justly claimed as one of the most beautiful climates in the world," proclaimed a pamphlet written, translated, and distributed by agents of one of the railroad companies that owned millions of the choicest acres of this land, "and one best adapted to the enjoyment of long and vigorous life." And so they came for land, freedom, and hope, some 16.5 million of them between 1850and 1900, the majority of them never getting beyond the East Coast cities, but many hundreds of thousands, especially the Germans and Scandinavians, ultimately bound for the vast American grassland frontier bordered by the Mississippi to the east and the Missouri River to the west.

Gro Rollag was one of the seven hundred fifty thousand Norwegians who emigrated to America in the nineteenth century. She was twenty-two years old and a bride of several days when she left her family's farm in Tinn in the Telemark region of southern Norway in April 1873. Gro had married a strapping blond boy named Ole, three years her junior, from a neighboring farm. Rollag was his surname as well, since it was the custom in that part of Norway for families to take the names of the farms where they lived. In Tinn there were six Rollag farms scattered through the valley -- North Rollag, South Rollag, Center Rollag, and so on -- all of them small and niggardly in yields of barley, oats, potatoes, hay. Growing seasons were short this far north, crop failures all too common in chilly overcast summers, fields so pinched that only the most primitive tools could be brought in. "Our honeymoon took us to America," Gro Rollag wrote fifty-six years later with her dry humor, as if they might have chosen Paris or Nice instead. While the truth, of course, was that Gro and Ole left Tinn because the fields of the Rollag farms were being divided into smaller and smaller parcels every generation, because they didn't want to leave their children with less than they had, because in Norway only the firstborn sons inherited the arable valley parcels known as bonde gaard, and because Ole was facing five years of compulsory military service.

But it wasn't in Gro's nature to write this in the memoir she titled "Recollections from the Old Days." Nor did she mention how hard it was to leave behind this stunningly beautiful landscape at the beginning of spring -- the mountains rising sharply from the shores of a twenty-five-mile-long lake known as the Tinnsjo, the farms clustered on a level shelf of land at the head of the lake, the waterfalls gleaming on the sides of the mountains and feeding streams that merged into the broad Mana River, the red and white farmhouses scattered around the stately white church. Beauty was abundant and free in the countryside of Tinn -- but you couldn't eat beauty, and the beautiful farms were yielding less and less while the population steadily grew. But they were comparatively lucky in Tinn. Elsewhere in Telemark the farm fields had become so small from repeated division that farmers had to harvest the hay that grew on the thatch of their roofs and grow vegetables by spreading dirt and manure on top of rocks. It was a sad, haunted country for all its beauty. Men in the prime of their lives built their coffins and stored them inside until they were needed. "It was not a very pleasant thing to look at before you got used to it," recalled one Norwegian immigrant.

Gro Rollag was no beauty, but she was a strong capable young woman with a long face, prominent cheekbones, high forehead, and a kindly intelligent look in her rather narrow eyes. According to family lore, she was not the most conscientious housekeeper because she preferred reading to housework. A love of books and reading ran in the family. Of all the possessions they were forced to sell or leave behind in Norway, what the Rollags remembered with deepest regret was the library they inherited from an eighteenthcentury ancestor -- lovely old books sold to pay for their passage to America.

Gro and Ole were the first of the family to emigrate, leaving Oslo on April 24, 1873. "We traveled via England and with the Cunard Line from Liverpool," Gro wrote in her recollections half a century later, furnishing precious few details. "We were thirteen days on the Atlantic and landed at Boston. From there we went west in a railroad boxcar. We took a little snack for the journey -- a piece of sausage and a few crackers each."

The Children's Blizzard. Copyright © by David Laskin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Erik Larson

“Laskin captures the brutal, heartbreaking folly of this chapter in America’s history.”

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The Children's Blizzard 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 72 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved the two-sided aspect of this book. This is the gripping tale of real American families facing an unreal situation on the prairies. The story is woven through the fascinating account of the development of weather technology and the American weather service. Laskin shows tender and thoughtful attention to both of his subjects and particular care to the places where they meet. This is not simply a book about weather - it's more of a portrait of how weather interacts with people and shapes their lives. A wonderful book.
TheDiane More than 1 year ago
I could not stop reading this book until I finished it! Barely put it down to eat. So informative about the weather that cruel winter and not in the least boring. You will feel such sorrow for the children caught in this tragedy and their grieving families. Truly a story of the past not to be forgotten. Please read this book and be forever changed by understanding the hardships of the people living through this time in our history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a hearbreaking, fascinating, well-researched book on the Blizzard of 1888. It shows the petty jealousies of the various weather-predicting bureaus and how the science of meteorology in 1888 was as much necromancy as science. This was the storm that rapidly destroyed the myth that the Great Plains were habitable for farmers and settlers, and that "rain follows the plow" (it doesn't). Lots of Great Plains publicity at the time was just short of a Ponzi scheme in terms of promises made to settlers. This book is meticulously researched, down to the author interviewing third-generation descendants of survivors of this blizzard. A bit too much meteorological information for me, but the stories make you want to weep. It's impossible to fathom the speed and destruction of this storm, but this book gives you the best shot at a horribly vivid reconstruction from survivor accounts.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have ever read. The author did an outstanding job of details and writing. Had he not written this book to give us historical information of the time, we would not have known these historical facts, job well done!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is not only intriging by introducing you to meterology, but is a part of our history that you will never forget. His writings transport you back in time. I could not put the book down. Excellent!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoy history but don't like when an author takes license with the facts. This book walks the fine line between objectivity and the author's emotional involvement with his subject, a difficult feat to accomplish. The supporting research has been done with great care. (Thank you, Mr. Laskin.) Where the author indulges in very limited speculation in dramatizing the events, it is both obvious (so the reader does not confuse it with the available facts) and informative, based on current scientific knowledge. By way of example, his descriptions of what a person endures physically and psychologically when enduring extreme cold is excellent. The reader emphathizes with the sufferings of people he has never met, and comes away with more appreciation of what it took to make the America we live in today. I highly recommend this book as a resource for all home-schooling parents. It would be a good unit study in several areas: U.S. history, science (hypothermia, weather, weather prediction), media (how newspapers stirred up public response), politics (how lives were thrown away because politicians wanted to build their power base).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A good look at the trials and tribulations faced by the early settlers. Reminds us of how lucky most of us are today
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
History Channel meets the Discovery Channel in a book! A fascinating and compelling read. Personally I loved the meteorological detail that's the backstory to a human tragedy.
BettyF More than 1 year ago
I was looking for a book of human survival under blizzard conditions. I had expected more information about how the early settlers got through this terrible winter. What I got was less than half a book about people. I was disappointed as so much of the book was uninteresting to me and I skipped probably 100 pages. I'm just not interested in the predicting and reporting of weather in that era. Disappointed.
NatNB More than 1 year ago
The author's extensive research permeates this book with intricate details on freezing bodies, politics of the Signal Corps, and first-hand accounts to make this an important read. Interesting, mo mention of the Native Americans during this tragedy. In his bio, the author reveals "I have never lived on the American Prairie"; made obvious by the ending comments. He says "Children were the unpaid workforce of the prairie, the hands that did the work no one else had time for or stomach for." He also quotes a NYT op-ed page which concludes that one of the greatest mistakes in American History was the "scheme" to settle the Great Plains. Mr. Laskin concurs that the blizzard of 1888 was an early sign of that mistake. Regardless of how these pioneers came here, be it false promises or lies of abundance, they came with a work ethic and strong belief to make a life out of nothing. If this author had been lucky enough to be a descendant of these pioneers, he would have heard wonderful stories of creative games, family, Church, and yes even hard work. A work ethic that continues today in the people of the Great Plains. If he had been blessed to be a part of this culture, I think he would have offered a different spin on the topic. Its unfortunate to summarize this amazing story of human perseverance as a mistake.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was fascinated by this account of a devastating blizzard that swept over the plains. My ancestors were surely involved and I was glued to this book until the storm was over!
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a great book to read and I'm not one to read a lot !! It is very interesting and keeps you on your toes. If you have lived in the Midwest and have witnessed any of the blizzards that we have here, you can definitely relate to this book. I am over half way done and have only been reading it about 2 weeks. Awesome !!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book starts out and ends great. There are several chapters that explain weather patterns, 1888 weather knowledge, etc that I found somewhat dry. It was the stories that I found so intersting! I've always been intersted in historic events and stories of individuals. However, I did not like how the author added his own perception of what happened to some people (but he worded them as fact). He put too much of his own personal emotion into stories that were already great.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although I'm not a 'weather' guy this book was a great read. It details what was in place and what transpired in regards to the this blizzard. Human stories were terrific and holds the reader
Guest More than 1 year ago
Read about this book thru a book review in the paper, and found it at and Indi Seller. Growing up in the Midwest I was eager to read about this historical event... and was not disappointed. Highly recommend this book to historical buffs... it did not bog down and kept moving at a good pace. Kept your attention until the end.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book through the Independent Book Sellers List. The story was engageing, but more of a narrative of what happend rather than a personal story. It reminds me of The Perfect Storm or the Sinking of the Whale Ship Essex. Human stories that will stay with you long after the last page is turned. It will expose you to meteorology.
ohurd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Children's Blizzard is a documentary about a particularly disastrous blizzard in 1888 in the Dakota Territory that blew in without warning, trapping many people outside. The beginning of the book is a little slow. About the first 100 pages is an introduction. However, when the storm arrives, the story becomes quite interesting. I also found that all of my questions about anything in the book were quickly answered in the following paragraphs. Many parts of the book shocked me. Overall I enjoyed reading this book, but I do not recommend reading it during the winter.
KimberlyL on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of one of the worst blizzards to ever hit the the Western Plains in January 1888. The author does a very good job of introducing the individuals involved as well as the technology and politics that contributed to the human side of the disaster as well as explaining the physical forces behind the weather patterns that created the deadly storm. The only draw back for me was the lack of visual aides, maps and photographs, etc. Those always enhance a story for me. But all in all, a very good book. It read like a good novel, but never let you forget that you were hearing the stories of real people some who survived and some who didn't.
nittnut on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a history of the January 12, 1888 blizzard that devastated families and farms in the Dakota territories. It is also so much more.The story begins by detailing the journey of the immigrants from Norway, Germany and Eastern Europe. They were lured by the promise of free land perfect for farming. They suffer many challenges, including insects and weather. The author also includes several detailed sections describing weather patterns in the central part of North America, and the conditions which brought about the "perfect storm". Of course, if you've read the [Little House on the Prairie] series, specifically, [The Long Winter], you will recognize many of the towns and the stories of grasshoppers and sudden terrible storms.The stories are heartbreaking and the stoicism of the pioneers is truly amazing.
carli on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fascinating, meticulously researched account of the 19th century blizzard that devastated parts of the Great Plains. David Laskin digs deep to unearth the economic, political, and scientific conditions leading up to the storm, explaining in great detail the meteorological causes of such a blizzard, what happens to a body as the effects of hypothermia take hold, and why people were settled into this wild frontier in the first place. A fascinating, devastating read filled with personal tragedies and triumphs of those who lived--or died--through the ordeal. My one gripe: Some of the passages describing in intricate detail the weather conditions that birthed such a storm read like a textbook and were generally boring and too long.
Clueless on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Gripping tale of true horror. Just goes to show you the carnage that can result from ignorance and government budgeting decisions. With some merciless weather thrown it. Cool.
marywhisner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dramatic telling of a sudden and ferocious blizzard that swept through Montana, the Dakotas, and Nebraska one day in 1888, and the people who faced it. The human stories -- immigrant families, schoolmarms, and more -- are richly textured and hence all the more touching.
lyzadanger on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An easy, pop barnstormer of a read reminiscent of Timothy Egan's "The Worst Hard Time" (though not as masterful) and Erik Larson's "Isaac's Storm."Laskin is a careful narrator and the story is a naturally interesting one. It's not hard to build compelling pathos in the plight of so many brave pioneers facing down the wrath of nature. Laskin's explorations of the nascent science of meteorology can sometimes wax enthusiastically long-winded, but you'll likely find that the bulk of this book slips away easily. You may even feel guilty at how enjoyable it is.
queencersei on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Brutal true story of a blizzard that swept the plains in the 1870's, killing many people. Tragically this included children on their way home from school.
ocgreg34 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
From Sebastien Junger's recounting of the fateful events surrounding the Andrea Gail in October of 1991 to the terrible havoc from the recent tornadoes in Texas, the power and destruction of storms has always been strangely intriguing. Maybe it's because we know next to nothing about how to control them or how to accurately predict them, and that fear of the unpredictable drives us to try to understand them. Nowadays, we have radar and weather balloons and computers that assist with figuring out what makes those powerful storms tick, and even then, we still are faced with a so much uncertainty about them.In "The Children's Blizzard