Book Review for “The Children’s Blizzard” by Melanie Benjamin.
Summary: “The morning of January 12, 1888, was unusually mild, following a punishing cold spell. It was warm enough for the homesteaders of the Dakota territory to venture out again, and for their children to return to school without their heavy coats–leaving them unprepared when disaster struck. At just the hour when most prairie schools were letting out for the day, a terrifying, fast-moving blizzard blew in without warning. Schoolteachers as young as sixteen were suddenly faced with life and death decisions: keep the children inside, to risk freezing to death when fuel ran out, or send them home, praying they wouldn’t get lost in the storm? … At its heart, this is a story of courage, of children forced to grow up too soon, tied to the land because of their parents’ choices. It is a story of love taking root in the hard prairie ground, and of families being torn asunder by a ferocious storm that is little remembered today–because so many of its victims were immigrants to this country.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Fiction – Literary; Settings: Historical, US Territories (pre-statehood); Other Categories: Novel, natural disaster, suspense, coming-of-age.
When I heard that Melanie Benjamin was writing this novel, my first thought was that it sounded like the same flash blizzard in Robin Oliveira’s novel, “The Winter Sisters.” Actually, Oliveira did use a similar blizzard as the backdrop of that novel, but moved it back to 1879 and over to upstate New York, because otherwise it wouldn’t have fit the location and timeline for her main protagonist. That means that while Oliveira used this natural disaster as inspiration, Benjamin dove right into the reality of it for her novel. And dive into it, she does with true vengeance; I was less than 20% into the book when the storm hit, taking the readers as much by surprise as the blizzard obviously did to the real residents. Admittedly, I wondered if this was such a good idea. You see, we don’t know much about these characters when the disaster comes, so we aren’t yet invested in them. However, Benjamin does fill in these gaps through the flashbacks and thoughts of these characters while they’re trying to find their way to safety. This was a bold choice, and some of these musings initially confused me slightly by their fluid timelines. Thankfully, I got over this quite quickly and think in the end it worked well.
Another thing that worked well was how Benjamin chose her main characters. More from the blurb on Goodreads says that this story was: “Based on actual oral histories of survivors,” and that it “follows the stories of Raina and Gerda Olsen, two sisters, both schoolteachers–one who becomes a hero of the storm, and one who finds herself ostracized in the aftermath. It’s also the story of Anette Pedersen, a servant girl whose miraculous survival serves as a turning point in her life and touches the heart of Gavin Woodson, a newspaperman seeking redemption.” Obviously, these people are all fictional, but based on real people who suffered and survived this horrible storm. That makes this book a bit of an outlier for Benjamin, who usually takes on real people for her novels, using their real names. But none of the survivors of this terrible blizzard had much claim to any long-lasting fame. That is precisely what this novel tries to rectify, and I think Benjamin succeeded in this quest.
I should also note that aside from how Benjamin so quickly tosses us into the tempest, I was also a bit wary about how much of the novel focused on the aftermath. This isn’t to say that we don’t get the full fury of this whiteout in the story telling, because that comes through in all its wrath. There were times when I actually held my breath, not knowing if someone was going to live or die. I’m sorry to tell you that unfortunately, many didn’t make it, and that brought tears to my eyes – but that was the reality of this tragic event, and I’m glad Benjamin didn’t shy away from that here. I think that the positive side of Benjamin’s inclusion of the many repercussion of the storm was that it pointed up just how sudden and brief this event actually was, yet the aftereffects lasted for years, if not generations.
Of course, what really shines through here is Benjamin’s lush writing style and both the gloriously heartfelt and shockingly heartbreaking descriptions of the settings and action. Furthermore, Benjamin does a marvelous job of showing us how each of the characters’ lives and personalities are impacted by their shared and separate experiences. I particularly liked how she was able to distinctively and beautifully show Anette’s childish innocence as opposed to the adults and young people in the story. Obviously, the big question here is, will those two niggles mentioned above have any effect on my star rating? Honestly, I don’t think they amount to all that much, so I’ll wholeheartedly recommend this novel, and round up my 4.75 stars to a full five out of five!
Penguin Random House – Ballantine released “The Children’s Blizzard” by Melanie Benjamin on January 21, 2021. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.