Having devoured David Laskin’s nonfiction account of the January 1888 blizzard, when I saw the announcement of Melanie Benjamin’s novel on the same storm, I knew I had to read or listen to it. I chose the audio and my first sitting with it was five full hours! It grabbed and kept my interest on a long, dull, car journey for work. I loved her books, Girls in the Picture, The Aviator’s Wife, and the fabulous Swans of Fifth Avenue.
At a time when weather forecasting was in its infancy, and the telegraph was the main means of sending urgent news, the blizzard chose a particularly cruel moment to hit. An unusually warm morning after weeks of cold too fierce to be out in had lulled people out of their homes, into town for supplies, children back to school–and mothers taking a chance to air woolens and bedding, wash long underwear, and other things that the bitter cold and cabin fever had prevented. It also decided to hit right as school was getting out–hence the name “Children’s Blizzard” for so many of its victims were under-dressed children walking home.
Raina Olsen, teaching school on this day, has to grow up and make choices well beyond the normal wisdom of 15 and 16 years olds. Raina is “boarding out” teaching school for the first time at age 15 having just passed the exam for her teaching licensee. Her students range from little ones of 5 or so to a boy a few months younger than herself. She must teach them and now, decide their fate in the blizzard, and go on living with the consequences of her decision. At another schoolhouse, her sister Gerta as well as teaching school is also in love for the first time. She too will decide the fate of her students and live with the consequences. Also in the mix is Annette, a girl so unloved her birth mother sells her to be a servant, a Black tavern owner in Omaha and his family, and the newspaperman Gavin who frequents the tavern and who well tell the world the stories of heroism on the prairie during the blizzard.
The characters are well-developed, the story is as swiftly moving as the blizzard itself, and everything was believable. I could feel the tension and fear in their hearts and minds of those poor kids and their teenage teachers. I could feel the misery of some of those immigrants lured to the prairie by the “fake news” of a farming paradise now stuck in sod houses or uninsulated shacks they called houses. As a mother I thought of all the times my kids went off to the bus wearing next-to-nothing in winter (but happily lived through it).
I could not stop listening to this! I was exhausted from the long car trip, but came into the house, sat down, and listened for another hour–I had to know what happened!! Swans of Fifth Avenue is a hard book to top, but this one tops it! Plus, it’s hard not to like an author who is my age, who grew up in Indianapolis and attended IUPUI! (She is one of the authors I enjoy following on Twitter, too). What incredible success she’s had–and will go on having if this book is any indication of how well she and her editor work together. This was an inspired idea and she has done it incredible justice.
Yet again this year I am giving a book a rating
I almost never give 5–this is an outrageously good rating for an outrageously good book.
The Children’s Blizzard: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin
I listened to the audio voiced by the outstanding Cassandra Campbell.