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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Another great read

Yesterday my friend Stephanie loaned me the book The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin. I just finished it and yeah, I know that I read fast. I got home last night after a 12-hour day and started reading it and I couldn't stop.

Does anyone remember The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder? It's part of the Little House series and it chronicles the Ingalls family's experience with the blizzards of 1880-81 in the Midwest. The blizzard that Laskin writes about happened a few years later, in January of 1888, and it was amazing.

In Nebraska, the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Iowa, January 12, 1888, began as a beautiful, relatively warm winter day, with temperatures hovering around freezing (instead of twenty degrees below) for the first time in weeks. The warm weather prompted schoolchildren and adults to go outside to school or to do farming work without wearing overcoats, mittens, scarves, etc. In the afternoon, the temperature dropped considerably, the wind picked up, and the "snow" started falling. Apparently, in blizzard conditions, the precipitation isn't really snow, it's more like finely ground ice needles--like ice-sand--and, due to the wind, creates whiteout conditions so intense that there is "zero/zero" visibility (you cannot see anything above or around you).

So, when the blizzard hit, the schoolteachers had to decide whether to keep the children in the schools overnight or send them home. Most teachers kept the kids overnight but some decided that, since there were farms nearby, they would be better off setting out into the storm. Hundreds of people died in the storm, and since so many of them were kids, it became known as the School Children's Blizzard.

Laskin conducted dozens of interviews with ancestors of survivors and consulted records, diaries, and letters detailing the experiences of the families who experienced the blizzard, as well as the records of the Army weather stations that failed to adequately forecast the conditions. There are a couple of poignant things about the blizzard and the people who went through it: one, most of the people were recent immigrants from Scandinavia and had only been living on the Plains for about five years, long enough to realize that it wasn't the paradise they had been promised--locust plagues and long, hard winters took care of that. But there wasn't much that they could do--they couldn't just pick up and move as soon as the going got tough, because that was where they had chosen to settle. They were committed to five years of homesteading in order to get their land for free. The second thing about the blizzard is that it didn't happen that long ago. This book, and Wilder's books, don't chronicle events that happened in the Dark Ages, or in some other unconceivable time. The Children's Blizzard occurred less than 100 years before I was born.

So much has changed since then... And I think that the settlers in the Midwest and the pioneers who forged the Oregon Trail were so tough. I mean actually tough, not the cynical, jaded, arrogant "tuff" that the postmodern world has created. I mean tough as in pioneer tough, as in build your own house, farm your own land, make your own clothes and your own food, lose kids in childbirth and in childhood, waste not want not, fear God--that kind of tough.

I LOVED the Little House books when I was a kid and a couple of years ago I reread them all for the first time since childhood. They definitely stood the test of time--I found them as interesting as I did as a child. I was struck, when reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, about how even though the Ingalls family lived a kind of life that most of us can't even imagine, and travelled in a covered wagon, and endured blizzards, and lost crops to locust plagues; despite all of those things, they seemed genuinely happy. Maybe that's the way she wanted to portray her family in those books, or maybe their happiness was an anomaly in an age of suffering, but maybe not, too. Maybe it's easy to get depressed about trivial shit like how your hair looks or why boys don't like you--and I am directing these criticisms at myself, not at anyone else--when life is so easy that you don't have to fight for the basics. I don't necessarily want to live in a wagon and build houses, and I appreciate washing machines and the like, but I don't know if our societies and cultures are necessarily better off for all of our mod cons.

Anyone else want to share an opinion?

4 Comments:

  • Hey Woman - that book sounds really interesting. Methinks I will pick it up!

    In the meantime, you have to do this thingee, and then you create one and post the link:

    http://kevan.org/johari?name=Kris10Joy7

    By Blogger Kristen, at 7:13 PM  

  • Okay so i was told i needed to comment more. So here i am... but see i didn't read the review of the book, 'cause really after the first paragraph i fell asleep so... i mean there is no way i'd make it though the whole book. I still enjoy my trashy books, just 'cause i can finish one in less than a week and i keep getting the plot lines all mixed up doesn't mean they aren't good books. And anyway, Tash sent most of them to me any ways so they have her stamp of approval... not that you'll ever see them be reviewed on this blog.
    Aundra

    By Anonymous Aundra, at 11:28 PM  

  • Um, ok, so that makes me sound like a total book snob. Which I guess I am. But not completely! The reasons that I wouldn't put my opinion of the latest in chick lit on this blog are a) those books don't require much, if any, critical thinking about the plot/historical relevance/social commentary and b) people will read those books with little prompting.

    For the record, though, I think that the Bridget Jones books are hilarious and well worth reading, as are the first couple Shopaholic books. Helen Fielding, the author of Bridget Jones's Diary and The Edge of Reason, defined the genre and set the bar pretty high. Sophie Kinsella also made me laugh--out loud--in her portrayal of London's infamous shopper.

    The rest of the genre I can do without, as the books are usually not very funny, have plots/background stories that are poorly veiled autobiographies (has anyone ever noticed that the "heroines" are always ex-English or journalism majors; live in either New York, Los Angeles, or London; and have a string of evil bosses/undeserving boyfriends/weird roommates--the experiences of twentysomething women everywhere) and, let's face it, if you've read one you've read them all.

    By Blogger Tasha, at 10:43 AM  

  • Your fabulous review makes _The Children's Blizzard_ sound like a good book to read. I'm glad to find out that other people value the Little House series--they were "seminal" works in my reading life, and I still enjoy reading them.

    By Blogger Natalie, at 11:28 PM  

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