The Children's Blizzard: A Novel - book cover
Dramas & Plays
  • Publisher : Bantam
  • Published : 11 Jan 2022
  • Pages : 384
  • ISBN-10 : 0399182306
  • ISBN-13 : 9780399182303
  • Language : English

The Children's Blizzard: A Novel

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator's Wife comes a story of courage on the prairie, inspired by the devastating storm that struck the Great Plains in 1888, threatening the lives of hundreds of immigrant homesteaders, especially schoolchildren.

"A nail-biter . . . poignant, powerful, perfect." -Kate Quinn, author of The Alice Network

The morning of January 12, 1888, was unusually mild, following a punishing cold spell. It was warm enough for the homesteaders of the Dakota Territory to venture out again, and for their children to return to school without their heavy coats-leaving them unprepared when disaster struck. At the hour when most prairie schools were letting out for the day, a terrifying, fast-moving blizzard blew in without warning. Schoolteachers as young as sixteen were suddenly faced with life and death decisions: Keep the children inside, to risk freezing to death when fuel ran out, or send them home, praying they wouldn't get lost in the storm?

Based on actual oral histories of survivors, this gripping novel follows the stories of Raina and Gerda Olsen, two sisters, both schoolteachers-one becomes a hero of the storm and the other finds herself ostracized in the aftermath. It's also the story of Anette Pedersen, a servant girl whose miraculous survival serves as a turning point in her life and touches the heart of Gavin Woodson, a newspaperman seeking redemption. It was Woodson and others like him who wrote the embellished news stories that lured northern European immigrants across the sea to settle a pitiless land. Boosters needed them to settle territories into states, and they didn't care what lies they told these families to get them there-or whose land it originally was.

At its heart, this is a story of courage, of children forced to grow up too soon, tied to the land because of their parents' choices. It is a story of love taking root in the hard prairie ground, and of families being torn asunder by a ferocious storm that is little remembered today-because so many of its victims were immigrants to this country.

Editorial Reviews

"Melanie Benjamin never fails to create compelling, unforgettable characters and place them against the backdrop of startling history."-Lisa Wingate, author of The Book of Lost Friends

"In this atmospheric novel, as relentlessly paced as a thriller, you experience the encroaching storm from many perspectives and, in the process, understand something important about the tenacity of the human spirit."-Christina Baker Kline, author of The Exiles

"Melanie Benjamin reminds us that immigrant stories are at the heart of American history. She weaves a moving and uplifting tale of courage, family, and sacrifice."-Jean Kwok, author of Searching for Sylvie Lee

"Benjamin draws you into the lives, hardships, and triumphs of a diverse cast of characters and compels you to care about them deeply. The Children's Blizzard has a pulse-pounding pace, a giant heart, and a sweep as wide as the prairie itself."-Elizabeth Letts, author of Finding Dorothy

"Melanie Benjamin has a gift for opening up and fleshing out her characters, giving readers unfettered access into their hearts and minds. Beautiful and haunting, this is a story of ordinary people forced to face the most extraordinary of moments."-Allison Pataki, author of The Queen's Fortune

"Chilling, quite literally . . . Benjamin has taken an almost-forgotten historical footnote and created a vivid and poignant story of Midwestern immigrants pursuing the American dream."-Sarah McCoy, author of Marilla of Green Gables

"The Children's Blizzard is that rarest of novels, as riveting in its story as it is delicate and empathetic with its characters. Melanie Benjamin has written an unforgettable tale full of fascinating and forensic historical detail."-Peter Geye, author of Northernmost

"Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series will be fascinated by The Children's Blizzard."-Oprah Daily

"Readers will want to curl up with a warm blanket by the fire for this novel inspired by real events. . . . [Benjamin] uses her prodigious gifts for bringing history to life."-AARP

"In this piercingly detailed drama, riveting in its action and psychology, Benjamin reveals the grim aspects of homesteading, from brutal deprivations to violent racism toward Native Americans and African Americans, while orchestrating, with grace and resonance, transformative moral awakenings and sustaining love."-Booklist (starred review)

"Benjamin revisits the Children's Blizzard that killed 235 people in January 1888 in this sprawling, well-told story. . . . There's great suspense inherent to the events.&n...

Readers Top Reviews

Susan S.Vivienne Utr
I had no knowledge of this historical event and reading it during a huge winter snow fall in Texas with the suffering it brought, even in modern times, was especially touching. I don’t think the writing was especially distinguished; however, I liked that the sisters, Raina and Gerda, did not end up as I thought they would. The author touched on differences between city and country life, between life on the prairie for men and women, and especially about the choices one makes in life: selfish or charitable, and how one choice forever changes life. Mrs Peterson, and her husband, too, surprised me, as did Annette and Tor. Each dealing with life forever changed by the Children’s Blizzard.
Mary Jordan
Saw this was coming out months ago. Was so interested. Well written and throughly engrossing. Brings tears to your eyes.
Miss Dorothy
I have enjoyed several of Melanie Benjamin's historical novels, including Alice I Have Been, The Aviator's Wife and The Girls in the Picture. This title caught my eye because it reminded me of The Long Winter, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which also included a blinding blizzard. I like how the author used many characters to keep my interest and to emphasis the effects of the storm. There are a few reasons why I gave this 4 stars, but I hesitate to be specific in order to avoid spoilers. This novel definitely was absorbing, due to its structure, and although there are many dark places I recommend it to fans of the author and American historical novels.
The first half of this wonderful book was hard to read . Sadness and fear and overwhelmingly frightening, I almost put it down but I am so glad I finished it! It is so much a story of the triumph of women in a man’s world, of the contribution of immigration though created by lies. I am sure to revisit this author!
This historical fiction novel is based on an actual event and I very quickly discovered which characters were my favorite. Along with the obvious protagonists, I thought that the storyline of Mrs. Pedersen and how her character's story arc intertwined with other main characters really added to the story. The only disappointment with the ending was the epilogue didn't cover the character I most wanted to know about years later. I guess it is left up to the reader's imagination.

Short Excerpt Teaser

Northeastern Nebraska, early afternoon, January 12, 1888

Chapter 1

The air was on fire.

The prairie was burning, snapping and hissing, sparks flying in every direction, propelled by the scorching wind. Sparks falling as thick as snowflakes in winter, burning tiny holes in cloth, stinging exposed skin. Her eyes were dry and scratchy, her hair had escaped its pins so that it fell down her back, and when she picked up one of those pins, it was scalding to the touch.

Everything was hot to the touch, even the wet gunnysacks they were using to beat out the flames were sizzling. When Raina glanced back at the house, she saw the dancing, hellish flames reflected in the windows.

"To the north," her father called, and she ran, ran on bare legs and bare feet that stung from earth that was a fiery stovetop as she beat out a daring lick of flame that had jumped the firebreak with all her might. Just beyond the hastily plowed ditch, the emerging bluestem grasses hissed; some exploded, but the fire did not look as if it was going to cross the break.

"Save some of that for the others, Raina," her father called, and even from that distance-­he was at the head of the west break-­and through the sooty air, she recognized the twinkle in his eyes. Then he turned and pointed south. "Gerda! Go!"

Raina watched her older sister leap toward another vaulting flame, beating it out before it had a chance. It was almost a game, really, a game of chicken. Who would win, the flames or the Olsens? So far, in ten years of homesteading, the Olsens had come out victorious every time.

Gerda smiled triumphantly, waving back at Raina, the outside row of vulnerable wheat, only a few inches tall, between them. At times like this, when the air was so stifling and smoky, Raina didn't feel quite so small, quite so inconsequential as when the air was clear. On a cool, still early summer morning, the prairie could make her feel like the smallest of insects, trapped in a great dome of endless pale blue sky, the waving grasses undulating, just like the sea, against an unbroken horizon. But Gerda, Raina knew, never felt this way. Gerda was stronger, bigger. Gerda was untouchable, even from the prairie fires that flared up regularly in Nebraska, spring and fall. Gerda would know what to do in the face of fire, or ice. Or men. Gerda-­

Gerda wasn't here.

Raina blinked, gaped at the McGuffey Reader in her hand. She wasn't on the prairie; she was in a schoolhouse. Her schoolhouse. The second class was droning the lesson:

God made the little birds to sing,

And flit from tree to tree;

'Tis He who sends them in the spring

To sing for you and me.

Raina sat straighter, tried to stretch her neck but it was no use; she was smaller than the biggest boy sitting in the last row of benches. Her pupils-­precious minds that were hers to form, or so she'd been told in the letter accompanying her certificate. But the oldest one was fifteen, only a year younger than she. And the way he looked at her made her shiver, made her think of a well that was so deep, the bottom would always remain a mystery.

No, it wasn't this boy's eyes that made her think that; this boy's eyes were blue, his gaze was measured, and if there was a wildness in them-­only at times, for he was a well-­brought-­up lad-­it was a wildness she believed she could tame.

His eyes were chocolate brown and soft with an understanding Raina had never before felt she needed. Until she first beheld that fathomless gaze.

Gerda would not feel so silly. Gerda would not allow herself to be so-­understandable. But Gerda was teaching in her own school across the border into Dakota Territory, three days' drive away, and boarding with a family there. A family not at all like the Pedersens, with whom Raina found herself sharing a roof, food, and air that was becoming too polluted with glances, sighs, and tears. And beds, beds upstairs, beds downstairs. Beds without borders, without walls, too exposed to those glances and sighs.

Her mother should have prepared her for this, Raina sometimes thought. Her mother should have taught her, warned her as she used to warn Raina not to wander into the tallgrass prairie when she was little, not to touch a hot stove, not to eat the pokeweed berries that flowered late in summer; her mother should have prevented her-­

From what? From going out into the world? That was the dream her mother most cherished: that Raina and Gerda would never have to homestead, that they could go to college, then live and teach in a city someday. But life in this new country was hard and expensive and they had no relatives to act as a cushion. First, the two girls had to teach and save their wages.