Saturday, June 25, 2022

First Chapter Review: The Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin


I purchased a copy of the historical novel, The Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin, when it first came out. I've been aching to read it, but have focused mostly on books I need to review the last few years.

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.

“A nail-biter . . . poignant, powerful, perfect.” —Kate Quinn, author of The Alice Network

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.

COVER: This cover is beautiful and haunting. The accumulating snow, the children looking through the window, the snowflakes coming down sideways to reflect the high winds that happened that January day in 1888 when so many children perished on the unforgiving prairie. The back of this cover appears snowy. I like the italics for the title's first word. 

FIRST CHAPTER: Raina is recalling a memory of her family. It seems like she is right there with her father and sister, Gerda. But she isn't. Barely out of school herself, Raina is a schoolteacher boarding with the Pedersen family. Gerda is teaching at another school far away from home. 

When Anette Pedersen drops her reader, Raina is drawn back to the present. A January day that brought with it warm temperatures that allowed for the children to attend school for the first time in days. People who had been trapped inside their homes because of the cold, ventured out. Raina sends the schoolchildren out for recess, but soon the sky changed and one of them runs back inside to get the teacher. 

KEEP READING: I am familiar with this part of American history. I also own the non-fiction book by David Laskin of the same title that Benjamin used as source material for her novel. I've read books by Benjamin in the past, so that was another reason to purchase The Children's Blizzard

When I approached this novel, I read the author's note first, then I read what might have been an introduction or prologue; it wasn't titled, so the reader can decide how what they want to consider it. I found reading the author's note helpful, because it taught me how Benjamin approached her story. 

In The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb: A Novel, and her other historical novels, she centered the story around historical characters. With The Children's Blizzard, she centered the story around fictional characters, even though they may be based on real people. I like that she stretched her wings in a different way. The storytelling remains strong and engaging. I expect a fabulous story from beginning to end. I am thinking it will take me a while to get through this novel, simply because I know the history and it will be heart wrenching to read what happens to these characters. Despite that, I am eager to continue.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Delacorte Press (January 12, 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 368 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0399182284
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0399182280

I purchased a copy of this book from Amazon. This First Chapter Review contains my honest opinions, which I have not been compensated for in any way.

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