04 September 2006

The Children's Blizzard

The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin is in the style of books like Simon Winchester's Krakatoa, but I liked The Children's Blizzard far better than anything I've read by Winchester. It details the deadly January 12, 1888, that affected much of the northern Great Plains of the US.

Laskin pays a lot of attention to detail; sometimes too much. I got bogged down in the first few chapters reading about the various families' comings and goings to the Midwest. The people were difficult to keep straight and they all had relatively similar stories, especially since I've got my own supply of Scandanavian ancestors who had rather similar experiences getting to the US, although they ended up in a different part of the country. I also could have used fewer weather details.

But once past those parts, the book clips along nicely. There is not a morbid attention to suffering or death, which I appreciated. Laskin does use more sentence fragments than I can forgive (and I can forgive a lot, but when there are so many that paragraphs are beginning with fragments, I get annoyed).

Laskin estimates that the relative death rate of those who died compared to those living in the area was similar to the number who died on the morning of September 11th. Still, most people survived the blizzard, even those who were marooned outside overnight. It seems amazing that people can survive conditions like that, but we seem to have a darker view in some cases of what people can actually survive (for example, most women didn't die from childbirth in the early years of this country, even though we seem to think childbirth was incredibly dangerous).

So, while this was an interesting book and worth reading, it's not one I'd say you just have to read. One of the most interesting points was the brief discussion at the end of the failure of the settling of the Great Plains- and this can apply to other parts of the country. There are many parts of the Midwest and Intermountain West that have been settled, but that settlement has never been terribly successful. Despite all our modern advances and all of our efforts, some places just aren't that hospitable.

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