I thought I knew what is was like to be cold. I’ve spent so many minutes, hours, waiting for buses, whether it was for grade school or the delayed 73 bus that would take me to the El stop a mile away. I’ve walked across the Nebraska campus and through wind tunnels to make it to the one class of the day. One of the few snow days we had in high school was because it was “too cold” (a balmy 10 below), and I ended up driving to go see a movie.
But I’ve never known cold. After reading David Laskin’s “The Children’s Blizzard,” that became woefully apparent. This nonfiction book retraced the days leading up to the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard on Jan. 12, 1888. As I picked the book off of the shelf in my parents’ house, I remembered reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter.” I was corrected in the first section of the book, where Laskin mentioned Wilder’s book and how it referenced the Snow Winter of 1880-1881. The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard was different; it was worse. Laskin writes that the blizzard left a great mark on the families of that region, and of the country’s perception of prairie living as a whole. I thought I knew cold, but this book reminded me that I definitely did not know cold. Not even close.
Some of the review quotes on the book cover use words like “heartbreaking” and “terrifying” — The Washington Post wrote that it was “a terrifying but beautifully written book.” And I have to agree. There were moments where I had to pause, especially when I tried to picture how the children’s limbs looked after being out in the storm for hours. Or when I tried to imagine what I would do if I were stuck in that blizzard. Would I have tried to walk from the schoolhouse to the closest farmhouse? Would I have stayed home that day, even though the warm weather seemed like the January thaw was beginning? If I was one of the weather “indicators” or forecasters, would I have sent out a cold wave warning at midnight on Jan. 12? Hindsight is 20/20, and this hindsight is haunting.
There was one passage in chapter two where Laskin describes just how cold it was:
It’s hard to find vocabulary for weather this cold. The senses become first sharp and then dulled. Objects etch themselves with hyperclarity on the dense air, but it’s hard to keep your eyes open to look at them steadily. When you first step outside from a heated space, the blast of 46-below-zero air clears the mind like a ringing slap. After a breath or two, ice builds up on the hairs lining your nasal passages and the clear film bathing your eyeballs thickens. If the wind is calm and if your body, head, and hands are covered, you feel preternaturally alert and focused. At first. A dozen paces from the door, your throat begins to feel raw, your lips dry and crack, tears sting the corner of your eyes. The cold becomes at once a knife and, paradoxically, a flame, cutting and scorching exposed skin.” (64)
This cold, this blizzard is terrifying. In another section of the book, where Laskin is going into the scientific details of the elements that created this blizzard, he writes about how the snow was was “hard slick-surfaced crystals that bounced off each other as they swirled around” and the snow “was hard as rock and fine as dust” (120). He writes that saying the snow “fell” gave the wrong idea: “The plates and needles and columns billowed out of the bases of the clouds in huge streaming horizontal veils, as if the bank of icy clouds had descended to earth and burst apart in the gale” (120). Survivors of the blizzard talked about how they saw a black cloud coming toward them — the storm had smaller particles of debris such as pollen, dust, salt crystals, shredded spiderwebs. It’s terrifying to picture. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.
Another passage caught my attention: windchill. I never really understood what windchill meant. I knew that it indicated that it felt colder than the temperature actually was, but that’s as much as I knew. But after reading the following passage, I know exactly what it means:
Television weathercasters like to say that windchill is what the weather feels like. Using the 2001 windchill index, when the wind is blowing 30 miles per hour at a temperature of 25 degrees, it feels like 8 degrees. “Feels like” is a fuzzy term for an exact transaction. What windchill means is that it’s irrelevant that the thermometer reads 25 degrees: If the wind is blowing at 30 miles an hour, the exposed parts of your body are losing heat at the rate that they would if the temperature were in fact 8 degrees.” (185)
Laskin spends huge passages toward the end describing what the body goes through in extreme cold temperatures like this 1888 blizzard. It’s horrifying what the cold will do to the body; I’ve never spent much time thinking about it. I’ve never had to.
Another terrifying part of the storm was the warm weather that came just before it. Fathers were outside with sons, letting out the cattle. Children were walking to school without their heavy wool coats for the first time in weeks. Everyone thought a thaw was coming, but they were wrong. Laskin details horrifying accounts of children trying to find their way home from the schoolhouse. Some children huddled in haystacks, some of them made it to houses with luck on their side, and some never reached their destination. Laskin writes haunting accounts of what the children must have experienced, so much so that I would put down the book to check my phone, to get my mind away from the narratives if only for a second.
Laskin’s book is a haunting, heartbreaking, beautiful and mind-opening read that looks closely at a terrifying natural disaster. It was interesting to see just how far we’ve come in meteorological science since then, and after looking at all the information about the events surrounding the blizzard, Laskin writes that “the fact remains that no one in a position of authority had the imagination or the will to combine science and technology and take action” (105). This book is a non-fiction must-read, whether or not you’ve grown up in any of the Plains states. It’s a history I think everyone should know about.