Friday, August 28, 2020

The Children's Blizzard - Melanie Benjamin

In theory, it is way too early for me to be posting a review of Melanie Benjamin’s The Children’s Blizzard. The novel won’t even be published until the middle of January 2021 – but I’m excited about this book right now, and I want to start spreading the word about just how good it is. (I’ll probably repost the review – without these comments – again in January just to close the loop.) So, this is going out today.

I only even became aware of The Children's Blizzard because a book blogger, whose posts I follow closely, a few days ago put the novel on a list of books she is looking forward to reading soon. I read a considerable amount of historical fiction, and I’m particularly fond of writers able to immerse me completely in the period being featured. I discovered that Melanie Benjamin has that particular talent back in November 2011 when I read her The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, a novel that I lost myself in for several days. So, I’m not particularly surprised by how much I like The Children’s Blizzard.

 

The Children’s Blizzard is closely based upon a real-life blizzard that struck parts of  Nebraska and Dakota  on January 12, 1888. As it turned out, the storm could not have arrived at a more perfect moment than it did to claim a high death toll. Bitterly cold weather and a blinding snowstorm struck the area on the afternoon of a day that had begun as the first break in below-zero weather settlers had seen in days. Children were excited to be back in school after such a long absence, and most of them, along with their teachers, came to school wearing clothing barely adequate even for the light freeze they expected to face on their walk home at the end of the day. Even worse, the storm system arrived just as students were being dismissed, ensuring that most of the blizzard’s several hundred victims would be children who either froze to death on their way home or while huddled in their poorly insulated classrooms waiting for someone to rescue them.

 

Benjamin uses a cast of fictional characters to tell her story, but many of the events and details she writes about are based on what she calls “recorded history” in her “Author’s Note.” Key characters include sixteen-year-old Raina and her eighteen-year-old sister Gerda, both freshly minted schoolteachers who have moved away from home to run small schools attended by the children of farming families when those children are not needed at home as farmhands. And children like Anette, a little girl whose mother sold her to a farmer and his wife for a pig and a couple of chickens, and Fredrik, the little boy who falls madly in love with Anette even though all the other children prefer to shame her. Most prominent among the adult characters are the Pedersens, the couple who purchase Anette in order to exploit her free labor, and Gavin Woodson, the freelance newspaperman responsible for luring so many immigrants to Nebraska via the misleading ads and “fake news” stories he plants in newspapers all over northern Europe and America.

 

The Children’s Blizzard recounts a nineteenth-century American tragedy, but this is a tragedy filled with heroines and heroes of all ages. The biggest heroes are only children themselves, including the schoolteachers forced to make life and death decisions about the dozen or so younger children entrusted to their care. Some made the right decision; some did not. Either way, those who endured and survived the blizzard would be marked by the experience for the rest of their lives.

 

The Children’s Blizzard is a remarkable novel, so don’t miss it.

11 comments:

  1. This one is on my TBR list already. You probably know this but, there is another book on the blizzard by David Laskin that was published in 2005 - https://www.amazon.com/Childrens-Blizzard-David-Laskin/dp/0060520760

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm going to check on this one, too. Thanks, Diane. :)

      Delete
    2. I may read that one at some point, Diane, to get a better perspective on the fictional version of the blizzard. The author references this one in her notes, and recommends that anyone wanting to learn more read it. It's quite a story, and a real tragedy the way it all worked out.

      Delete
  2. I've requested this one from NetGalley and am so pleased that you think so highly of it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll look forward to hearing what you think of it. I really liked Benjamin's style and the way she organized the novel. She flashes forward near the end to very effectively tie up all the loose ends that readers might be wondering about.

      Delete
  3. I'm eagerly awaiting The Children's Blizzard. I know it's one I'm really going to like. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I really think you'll enjoy it, Lark. It's a great novel, but knowing that it is so closely based on recorded fact about the blizzard makes it even more poignant than it otherwise would have been.

      Delete
  4. The "blizzard" in the title seemed familiar to me, and I found it on my blog from many years ago. The one I read was nonfiction for kids, and was about a storm in the northeastern US in March 1888. The fonts were kinda weird in my post for some reason. I did like the book very much. If you are interested, here is the address. https://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/2011/03/blizzard-by-jim-murphy.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the link and the heads-up about the book, Nan. I'd like to take a look at it.

      Delete
  5. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one, Sam! I thought it was very well done as well. The blizzard was such a horrifying event and Benjamin really brought it to life. Like you, I love it when an author really immerses me in a historical event - not only does it teach me about said event, but it makes it personal.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I couldn't put the book down for long, Susan...just had to find out who would survive and what the damage would be. Benjamin is a very good. She really puts the reader into the time period she's writing about, and makes them feel comfortable being there. That's a neat trick.

      Delete