Popular historian Laskin (Partisans, 2000, etc.) gives an engrossing if speculative account of a brutal 1888 blizzard that signaled the end of optimism on the Great Plains.
“The tragedy of the January 12 blizzard was that the bad timing extended across a region and cut through the shared experiences of an entire population,” asserts the author. Laskin shrewdly takes a broad historical view, arguing that the snowstorm—which killed hundreds, including numerous schoolchildren—demonstrated the folly of settling the Dakota and Nebraska territories. In his telling, scores of Germans, Scandinavians, and persecuted Ukrainian Mennonites found irresistible American railroad agents’ promises of free grassland prairie homesteads in “one of the most beautiful climates in the world.” Though the land was indeed spacious, it proved capricious and unforgiving of the immigrants’ naiveté, besetting them with locusts, fires, snowstorms, droughts, and other seeming “acts of God.” Still, nothing compared to the 1888 blizzard, as its stoic survivors’ awed narratives make clear. Precursor storms arrived throughout 1887, devastating the open-range system of cattle management. (Theodore Roosevelt’s losses were particularly severe.) When temperatures rose unaccountably on January 12, the hapless settlers, unaware of what such oddities portended, assumed the warmth was more than momentary. Laskin intercuts between their recollections and the fledgling weather forecast service provided by the War Department’s Signal Corps, headed by notoriously incompetent martinet Adolphus Greely, who serves as the primary villain here. Clearly fascinated with forecasting’s infancy, the author leaves open the question of whether quicker communications or less interference by Greely might have helped save the far-flung settlers. Some children owed their lives to plucky schoolteachers who sequestered them in one-room schoolhouses overnight, burning desks for warmth; many others perished, snow-blind, only yards from inhabited structures. The blizzard’s toll provided fodder for the nation’s newspapers, which highlighted maudlin tales of heroism and tragedy; it also forced the transfer in 1891 of forecasting responsibilities to the Department of Agriculture.
A suspenseful disaster narrative.