Melanie Benjamin writes excellent, well-researched historical fiction. Usually she takes a well-known person and fictionalizes plausible events around the character. That’s what she did in “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” (Truman Capote), “Alice I Have Been” (Lewis Carroll) and “The Aviator’s Wife” (Anne Morrow Lindbergh).
This time around, her editor gave her a challenge: Start with a historical event and fictionalize the characters who will experience that event. Benjamin chose a freak snowstorm that hit the Great Plains in 1888.
“The Children’s Blizzard,” so named because of the large number of children who perished, hit Nebraska and the Dakota Territory on Jan. 12, 1888. After several weeks of bitterly cold winter weather, the day dawned mild and sunny. The immigrant children and farmers of the plains started their day with light jackets and the hope of spring in the future. About 3 o’clock, just the time when teachers were sending the children home from school, the blizzard struck. Within 30 minutes the snow was so thick that travel was impossible. Some accounts say the temperature dropped nearly 100 degrees in just 24 hours.
From oral histories and newspaper articles of the time, Benjamin has recreated the desperate atmosphere of the weather emergency itself and of the hardscrabble lives of the Scandinavian immigrants of rural Nebraska. “The Children’s Blizzard” follows the lives of three women, fictionalized from actual people Benjamin found in her research.
Raina and Gerda Olsen are Norwegian-American sisters who have left their childhood home and are experiencing their first year of teaching in different communities, Raina in Nebraska and Gerda in the southern Dakota Territory. Each makes different decisions for her students; one woman becomes a heroine of the plains and the other is shamed and ostracized from her community as a result of her decisions.
It’s also the story of little Anette Pedersen, one of the children. She was sold by an unloving mother into servanthood and lives in the same household in which Raina is boarding. She is a somber, unloved, desolate little girl. When the blizzard begins, and teacher says they must wait it out, Anette and her one friend, Frederich, run from the school. Anette knows she must make it home to do her chores or the consequences will be dire.
In addition to being a story of survival and the consequences of the choices we make, this is also the story of the manipulation perpetrated in Europe at the time. America needed people to settle the plains, and often the propaganda used to get them here was, at best, misleading. Drawn by the promise of mild climate and fertile land, farmers left communities in their native countries and were given large tracts to settle. Instead of the nirvana they were promised, they found, of course, the unforgiving American Great Plains. Resources were scarce, the winters harsh, the summers short, and promised government assistance nonexistent.
And so we meet newspaper journalist Gavin Woodson, who carries another narrative thread. Along with many others, he had written the influential pieces that had drawn these people from their native lands to the unforgiving plains. Woodson feels a personal responsibility for the plight of these hard-working, courageous people, who are determined to make a life in a country that seemed not to want them after they arrived.
One of the things I like to do when I read engaging historical fiction is a little “side research” of my own. In the case of “The Children’s Blizzard,” I found a very interesting podcast called “Natural Disasters,” episodes 37-38. In this podcast you can identify the real-life people from which Benjamin drew her characters and you get a good feel for the atmosphere of the story. If you’re on the fence about this book, listening to the podcast would be a great start.
Or, skip the podcast and jump right in! For fans of historical fiction, this is a story of courage, determination, redemption and the search for the American Dream. Thank you, Melanie Benjamin, you’ve done it again!
• “The Children’s Blizzard” by Melanie Benjamin was published by Delacorte Press in January. It retails for $28.
• Luanne Clark works for Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in Thursday’s SCENE every week.