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The Children's Blizzard

Review

The Children's Blizzard

On January 12, 1888, a deadly blizzard unexpectedly descended on the American plains of Nebraska and the southern Dakota Territory. The storm swept through the region on an unseasonably warm day and reached its peak right as schools let their students out for the afternoon. Children, many of whom were not wearing their usual winter layers, were caught on their walks home in the worst of it. Hundreds of people died that day, and to maintain the romantic lie of westward expansion, the numbers were rounded down and generally didn’t take into account the casualties on the nearby Great Sioux Reservation.

This real-life tragedy is fictionalized in Melanie Benjamin’s new novel, THE CHILDREN’S BLIZZARD. Based on news articles and accounts from survivors, it tells the harrowing tale of three young women who live through the storm but who are irrevocably changed.

"THE CHILDREN’S BLIZZARD is dark and often troubling, but Benjamin’s writing remains elegant throughout. Frightening and thrilling, thoughtful and provocative, this is a story that both celebrates and damns the American Dream."

Sisters Gerda and Raina Olsen in many ways typify the experiences of homesteading Norwegian immigrants. Their family left Norway for the opportunities promised in America, and they found themselves working daily to make a life on the plains as farmers. Smart and ambitious, Gerda and Raina become school teachers as teenagers, and they find work in small schoolhouses, boarding with community members while away from home. On the day of the storm, each makes a series of life and death decisions for herself and her charges that will stay with her for the rest of her life.

Gerda, her heart full of romantic plans with her beau, dismisses her students into the storm, hoping they all can make it home safely on their own. However, later she finds herself caught in the worst of the blizzard trying to keep herself and two little students alive. Though Gerda lives, her survival comes at a great cost physically and emotionally. She loses her standing in the community and in her family, and spends the rest of her life seeking solace. Meanwhile, Raina keeps her students with her. She and a 15-year-old farm boy named Tor devise a plan to bring them all to safety. They succeed, but like Gerda, she remains traumatized by the storm and the loss and change it brings.

Also at the center of Benjamin’s story is Anette Pedersen, a servant girl working for the family with whom Raina boards and one of Raina’s own students. Anette --- slow, plain and alone in the world --- takes the brunt of the tensions in the Pedersen household: the problems in Anna and Gunner’s marriage, and the inappropriate feelings between Gunner and Raina. But two key friendships and a deep inner strength allow Anette to grow into a true survivor.

Benjamin’s account of the storm is appropriately chilling. The fear, confusion and pain experienced by the characters are made as real as possible through her prose. Just as the storm is claustrophobic and brutal, so too are many of the relationship dynamics that are explored. The vastness of the American west is contrasted with the struggles that the landscape presented to so many immigrants and homesteaders. Gerda, Raina, Anette and the other children of the prairie come of age on a land recently stolen from its indigenous inhabitants.

While Benjamin focuses on the storm itself and its enduring damage, she also addresses the political, cultural and social tensions in which her characters live. A writer realizes that he has been complicit in selling a dangerous dream to immigrants; a Black family learns that racism remains a terrible truth out west; and a wife and mother decides that violence is justified if it brings freedom.

THE CHILDREN’S BLIZZARD is dark and often troubling, but Benjamin’s writing remains elegant throughout. Frightening and thrilling, thoughtful and provocative, this is a story that both celebrates and damns the American Dream.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 28, 2021

The Children's Blizzard
by Melanie Benjamin

  • Publication Date: January 12, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press
  • ISBN-10: 0399182284
  • ISBN-13: 9780399182280