Talk about a page-turner. This is one of those books where you read the blurbs (which say things like "terrifying but beautifully written" and "reads like a thriller") after you've read the book, and you think "Yeah, that's about right." This is a non-fiction account of the blizzard that swept over the Great Plains on January 12, 1888. It was an event that defined the consciousness of a broad area of the nation, and continues to define it to this day. The story itself is heartrending: the first warm, mild morning in weeks turned instantly into one of the coldest, deadliest blizzards of all time. Farmers were caught in their fields, ranchers were caught tending to their animals. Worst of all, children were caught in schoolhouses, many of which could not provide adequate shelter through such a storm. By the time January 13 rolled around, the prairie was scattered with hundreds of dead bodies, many of them children (thus the name given to the blizzard, from which the book takes its title). A telling excerpt:
Today, aside from a few fine marble headstones in country graveyards and the occasional roadside historical marker, not a trace of the blizzard of 1888 remains on the prairie. Yet in the imagination and identity of the region, the storm is as sharply etched as ever: This is a place where blizzards kill children on their way home from school.
Laskin does a remarkable job with the book. The reasons for the blizzard's power and deadliness are complicated, bound up not just in the weather itself but in the history of the region (and the U.S. in general), in patterns of European migration, in military affairs, even in religion. The author weaves these lines together into a gripping story; it's difficult to put the book down, even as the text moves in and out of such disparate subjects. I should add that his writing was good enough to make the story of a blizzard tangible to me even as I read it on 90° days in June.
This is one of the two best books I've read all year, and one of the best I've ever read period. It's books like this that make me love the historical-nonfiction genre. And it's stories like this that, in spite of themselves, bind me to the Great Plains.