Plains Folk


I think it was mainly a matter of literary consonance that led Walter P. Webb, the founding historian of the Great Plains, and a Texan, to write, “The blizzard is the grizzly of the Plains.” I doubt that Webb ever saw either a grizzly or a blizzard, but the statement is nicely epigrammatic. According to the historian, the word “blizzard” was first applied to a snowstorm by an editor in Iowa in 1870. Webb claims this meteorological phenomenon for the Great Plains: “Blizzards occur rarely in the East,” he declares, “and their real home is on the northern Plains.”

Personally, I love to snowshoe in blizzards, because I think it gets you in touch with your senses, and I’d love to take old Webb out for a taste of wind-driven whiteness. He quotes journalist C.A. Lounsberry, writing for an incredulous eastern public of a North Dakota blizzard in 1887: “It was a mad, rushing combination of wind and snow which neither man nor beast could face. . . . Persons lost upon the prairie were almost certain to meet with death, unless familiar with the nature of these storms. . . . I learned of many instances where persons were lost in trying to go from the house to the barn.”

Now, this business of getting lost between the house and the barn is one of those things people keep saying, you’re supposed to say it, but I’ve never seen it confirmed. What I do know, however, is that blizzards were a particular terror for children snowed into the schoolhouse or caught trying to get home from school.

That was the case for countless children and their teachers during the horrible blizzard of January 12-13, 1888, as described in a recent book, The Children’s Blizzard, written by David Laskin and published by HarperCollins. The storm swept from North Dakota down the plains into western Kansas, but it wreaked its worst havoc in South Dakota and Nebraska, because it was there it caught the kids at school. “By morning on Friday the thirteenth,” writes Laskin, “hundreds of people lay dead on the Dakota and Nebraska prairie, many of them children who had fled—or been dismissed from—country schools at the moment when the wind shifted and the sky exploded.”

Laskin has real talent for the recreation of real time, that is, mixing stories with one another in episodic fashion to convey the confusion and terror of the events. We follow many stories in many places through a short stint of time. The regional scope of disaster is brought home. The author, too, provides analysis that was not forthcoming or even available at the time. We read, for instance, of Johann Albrecht and four other Schweizer (German-Swiss Mennonite) boys who perished in the snows of South Dakota—not just that they died, and that the were good boys, and much mourned by their families, but also how, physiologically, they fell victim to the storm. Laskin details the progress of hypothermia, so that, “When their internal temperatures hit 91 degrees, they ceased to care what happened to them. . . . Hallucinations and delusions set in.”

The narrative so constructed is not for the faint of heart. Up until this, I always said the coldest passage in the literature of the Great Plains was the “Genesis” section of Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow. The Children’s Blizzard, though, is colder yet.

Laskin’s book is marred by his epilogue, wherein he argues essentially that people shouldn’t try to live in a land with such extremes of weather as the Great Plains. As I write, a blizzard is blowing in, and I contemplate taking my snowshoes down from the wall. It feels good.


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