January 12th, 1888 began as an unseasonably mild day in the upper Midwest prairie. For the first time in months, immigrant children walked to school without coats and gloves. Farmers flocked to their fields to finish chores abandoned when winter descended in November. Then suddenly and without warning, the clear skies turned gray and a wall of ice dust and freezing temperatures blasted in from Canada, covering 780 miles and dropping temperatures to 47 degrees below zero in parts of Minnesota. The Children's Blizzard, by David Laskin, rivetingly recounts how this treacherous and unanticipated storm blanketed the Dakota Territories, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, catching people unawares and leaving in its wake a death toll estimated at nearly 500.
Settlers from Germany and Scandinavia had stampeded west to claim their 160 acres of free land promised by the Homestead Act, but few were prepared for the brutal weather conditions they encounted on the plains. Their unpreparedness was compounded by the US Army Signal Corp, whose forecasters underestimated the severity of the storm and posted weather warnings too late. Yet it's unlikely that even a timely dispatch could have reached the thousands of people living in isolation scattered across the plains and powerless to cope with the blizzard's fury.
The Children's Blizard is nonfiction so richly researched and compelling that it reads like fiction, and is one of the most fascinating books I've encountered. Laskin journeyed through the Midwest interviewing victims' descendants and poring over local and national archives, and breathes life into six pioneer families who struggled to survive the storm. For more by this talented storyteller, check out The Long Way Home: An Immigrant Generation and the Crucible of War and, Laskin's latest, The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century.