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The Children’s Blizzard

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A couple of months ago, my coworkers started a book group. The first month, which I missed, we read A Paper Life. (Missed is a strong word. I didn’t miss it so much as I didn’t participate in it.) Last month, we read Mr. Timothy, which is an excellent piece of historical fiction about Victorian prostitution set around Charles Dickens’s Tiny Tim all grown up. This month, we read The Children’s Blizzard and I have to say I’m more than a little disappointed.

The Children’s Blizzard is well-written. David Laskin has mastered his craft. The narrative was smooth and tight. My waning interest had nothing to do with choppy sentences or abstruse construction. This book is also well-researched. Laskin speaks about the storm with the authority that only comes from pouring over every available primary source on your subject. I like non-fiction; I read a lot of history books. And, when I complain about things from music to movies, I’m often heard saying, “Could they have hired a writer?” So, the fact that I thought it was well-written and well-researched is pretty high praise.

Here’s the rub: I spent the entire 271 pages of the main text not caring. What’s worse is that its about people dying and I don’t even feel bad about not caring. At most, all I can manage is an overly apathetic, “That sucks.”

There were sixty some pages about the genesis of the storm and a pretty detailed meteorological description of the cold wave that followed. Now, maybe this is just lost on me because I’ve lived most of my life in a prairie state. I can tell you it doesn’t just get cold here, it gets bitterly, brutally cold. The children that died would have known that, too. In fact, they would have been able to attest to the fact that the weather here in the winter is pretty much just cold, snow, super cold, ice, ten minute respite, more cold. There’s that old adage, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” What I’ve always thought that meant was, “five minutes from now, you’ll be nostalgic for the weather from five minutes ago.”

There was a nice discussion of wind chill factor, how it was invented and what it actually means. Laskin also goes into quite a bit of detail about hypothermia, its symptoms and its stages. I found that to be very interesting. But, as for the poor kids who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, I couldn’t be bothered. Laskin gives you an extensive history of how these families ended up in Nebraska and the Dakota territory. He gives a lot of the how and a little of the why, but I never felt personally invested in any of the people he discussed. It almost felt clinical, or like I was reading down a checklist. Okay, Did you come by boat? Uh-huh. Wagon or train? I see. Now, I’m going to need you to take a deep breath for me. Inhale, that’s it. It was like that. The fact that I don’t care actually gives deeper mean to the phrase silent as the grave. That these children died and weren’t around to tell their stories may be partly why I found the book so boring. My friend Kat disagreed with me about the book being well-written. She felt Laskin used unnecessarily big words and flowery language. I felt this was an attempt to get me to sympathize with the characters. It didn’t work.

I don’t expect character-driven plot from my history books, but I did expect, with a title like “The Children’s Blizzard” that I would have some connection to the children. In the end, I had trouble remembering which kids belonged to which back story. And, that’s what was disappointing. If I’m going to read about sudden, senseless death, I want to care a little for the dying.

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About Katharine Donelson

  • Some writers are simply clinical, as you describe so well. Okay, Did you come by boat? Uh-huh. Wagon or train? I see. Now, I’m going to need you to take a deep breath for me. Inhale, that’s it.

    Maybe your standard criticism needs to evolve in light of this experience: “Could they have hired a good writer?”

  • Ha. Yes. Perhaps it should evolve. Thank you.

  • Sara

    I read the book for my physiology class (because of the book’s details about hypothermia), and I loved it. I remember talking about it with other people in my class, and we were all caught up in it. Personally, I felt really attached to the major characters that Laskin presented, but that is just my opinion.