May 26, 2006

Review: The Children's Blizzard

Laskin, David. Harper Collins, 2004, 320 pages.

On January 12, 1888 an immense blizzard suddenly roared across the Great Plains, killing hundreds of people. Many of the victims were children on their way home from school or helping on family farms.

Laskin's book culls information from newspaper accounts, diaries, and government documents to piece together a troubling vignette of life on the prairie in the late 19th century. The book is equal parts historical nonfiction, detective novel, and weather drama.

Laskin does take liberties with the thoughts of victims as they lay huddled in the bitter cold, lost in a blinding storm of epic proportions. However, as this is written for a general audience, one can forgive the author's desire to more fully develop the characters.

As a weather geek I found the book informative and compelling. Despite the advances in meteorology, though, we yet remain at the mercies of an indifferent, unpredictable Mother Nature.

There some interesting themes that Laskin explores that bear worth further exploration by other historians. The author's descriptions of the political battles in the Signal Service bureacracy are a fascinating reminder of the everpresence of organizational subterfuge, and the attention that Laskin gave to the nascent US Weather Service suggests another area for more work.

While not footnoted, Laskin provided chapter-by-chapter references on his sources, and the text has a thorough index for those seeking to mine it for specific information.

I recommend the book for both historians and general readers, and found it to be an agreeable way to pass the time during the thunderstorms of the past two days.


Anonymous said...

This was a good book. I'll have to reread it!

Anonymous said...

Loved it!

Hooda Thunkit said...

Signal service?

Rudimentary telegraph relay system, i'm guessing.

historymike said...

You nailed it, Hooda. The SIgnal Service relied on the telegraph to transmit information; the portion of the Signal Service that handled weather forecasting became the National Weather Service in the 1890s.