From the New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife comes a story of courage on the prairie, inspired by the devastating storm that struck the Great Plains in 1888, threatening the lives of hundreds of immigrant homesteaders, especially schoolchildren.
“Melanie Benjamin never fails to create compelling, unforgettable characters and place them against the backdrop of startling history.”—Lisa Wingate, author of The Book of Lost Friends
The morning of January 12, 1888, was unusually mild, following a punishing cold spell. It was warm enough for the homesteaders of the Dakota Territory to venture out again, and for their children to return to school without their heavy coats—leaving them unprepared when disaster struck. At the hour when most prairie schools were letting out for the day, a terrifying, fast-moving blizzard blew in without warning. Schoolteachers as young as sixteen were suddenly faced with life and death decisions: Keep the children inside, to risk freezing to death when fuel ran out, or send them home, praying they wouldn’t get lost in the storm?
Based on actual oral histories of survivors, this gripping novel follows the stories of Raina and Gerda Olsen, two sisters, both schoolteachers—one becomes a hero of the storm and the other finds herself ostracized in the aftermath. It’s also the story of Anette Pedersen, a servant girl whose miraculous survival serves as a turning point in her life and touches the heart of Gavin Woodson, a newspaperman seeking redemption. It was Woodson and others like him who wrote the embellished news stories that lured northern European immigrants across the sea to settle a pitiless land. Boosters needed them to settle territories into states, and they didn’t care what lies they told these families to get them there—or whose land it originally was.
At its heart, this is a story of courage, of children forced to grow up too soon, tied to the land because of their parents’ choices. It is a story of love taking root in the hard prairie ground, and of families being torn asunder by a ferocious storm that is little remembered today—because so many of its victims were immigrants to this country.
Benjamin (Mistress of the Ritz) revisits the Children's Blizzard that killed 235 people in January 1888 in this sprawling, well-told story. As the children from two Great Plains schools prepare to leave at the end of an unusually mild winter day, Benjamin focuses on the different choices made by their teachers first-generation Norwegian American sisters Gerda and Raina Olsen, a three-day ride apart from each other across the Nebraska-Dakota border while the storm approaches with dark clouds and strong winds. Gerda, teaching in Dakota Territory, rashly dismisses her students so she can see her would-be beau, while Raina, in Nebraska, chooses to keep her small class together. Meanwhile, jaded newspaperman Gavin Woodson is torn between opportunism he knows he's found a great story that can punch his ticket back to N.Y.C. and romanticism, as Gavin, and his readers, grow entranced by the stories of the blizzard's unlikely heroes and heroines, such as one of Raina's students who tries to save his classmate. The narrative revolves largely around northern European settlers to the region, and the attempts to incorporate the experiences of Sioux people feel somewhat forced. Nevertheless, there's great suspense inherent to the events. Benjamin achieves a balance of grand drama and devastatingly intimate moments.