“Heartbreaking. . . . This account of the 1888 blizzard reads like a thriller.” — Entertainment Weekly
The gripping true story of an epic prairie snowstorm that killed hundreds of newly arrived settlers and cast a shadow on the promise of the American frontier.
January 12, 1888, began as an unseasonably warm morning across Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Minnesota, the weather so mild that children walked to school without coats and gloves. But that afternoon, without warning, the atmosphere suddenly, violently changed. One moment the air was calm; the next the sky exploded in a raging chaos of horizontal snow and hurricane-force winds. Temperatures plunged as an unprecedented cold front ripped through the center of the continent.
By the next morning, some five hundred people lay dead on the drifted prairie, many of them children who had perished on their way home from country schools. In a few terrifying hours, the hopes of the pioneers had been blasted by the bitter realities of their harsh environment. Recent immigrants from Germany, Norway, Denmark, and the Ukraine learned that their free homestead was not a paradise but a hard, unforgiving place governed by natural forces they neither understood nor controlled.
With the storm as its dramatic, heartbreaking focal point, The Children's Blizzard captures this pivotal moment in American history by tracing the stories of five families who were forever changed that day. David Laskin has produced a masterful portrait of a tragic crucible in the settlement of the American heartland.
The P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.
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The Children's Blizzard
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.
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“Laskin captures the brutal, heartbreaking folly of this chapter in America’s history.”