One of the most infamous blizzards in American history occurred in January 1888 on the Northern Plains. Part of what made it so infamous was just how unusual it was from a meteorological perspective. The blizzard struck without warning in the middle of an unusually warm day. The unseasonable weather had lured many outside after weeks of cold temperatures and bad weather.
Unfortunately, the timing also meant the blizzard occurred just as children were being released from their one-room schoolhouses, leaving schoolteachers (many of whom were teenagers barely much older than their students) to make an impossible decision. Shelter in place with their students in a flimsy building with inadequate fuel or send their students on their way home in the hopes they could beat the storm’s advance.
The book, which was released last month, first came to my attention last year when I got to participate in a library conference in which Melanie Benjamin was a speaker. Her comments about the book and the tragic historical event it was based on intrigued me, so I had my calendar marked, waiting for the book’s arrival.
The novel focuses on the perspectives of several characters, though it prioritized that of two sisters, Greta and Raina–the daughters of Norwegian immigrants who are teaching at separate schools in Nebraska and Dakota Territory–and the experience of immigrant women on the prairies in general.
There’s a lot of fiction that glamorizes the prairie pioneer experience, but as Benjamin depicts so well in her novel, the reality of life was quite a bit grimmer.
In fact, a recurring theme throughout the novel is how many residents were lured to move to the Great Plains with the promise of achieving the American Dream in astoundingly fertile land and mild climates, only to learn after they’d exhausted all their resources relocating that their surroundings were much harsher than they’d been led to believe.
Some of Benjamin’s characters handle this disappointment more gracefully than others, though the book doesn’t have clear-cut heroes and villains. There were some characters I initially found more interesting than others, but by the end, I really came to appreciate all the figures in Benjamin’s story, from the grizzled, cynical newspaper reporter who starts to have a twinge of regret about the offensively inaccurate advertising he’s written luring people to the Plains over the years to the shrewish, miserable housewife who Raina boards with. They all have their stories, and Benjamin doesn’t shortchange any of them.
This is definitely not a feel-good read, but it is also ultimately not one without hope. If you like evocative historical fiction with complex, compelling characters, I highly recommend this book.
Recommended for those who enjoy the works of Kate Alcott, Marie Benedict, and Ariel Lawhorn.
Are you a Melanie Benjamin fan? Do you like historical fiction? What have you been reading lately? Tell us in the comments! As always, please feel free to check out our online catalog to read more about this item and to place a hold.