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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.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Children's Blizzard
Northeastern Nebraska, early afternoon, January 12, 1888
The air was on fire.
The prairie was burning, snapping and hissing, sparks flying in every direction, propelled by the scorching wind. Sparks falling as thick as snowflakes in winter, burning tiny holes in cloth, stinging exposed skin. Her eyes were dry and scratchy, her hair had escaped its pins so that it fell down her back, and when she picked up one of those pins, it was scalding to the touch.
Everything was hot to the touch, even the wet gunnysacks they were using to beat out the flames were sizzling. When Raina glanced back at the house, she saw the dancing, hellish flames reflected in the windows.
“To the north,” her father called, and she ran, ran on bare legs and bare feet that stung from earth that was a fiery stovetop as she beat out a daring lick of flame that had jumped the firebreak with all her might. Just beyond the hastily plowed ditch, the emerging bluestem grasses hissed; some exploded, but the fire did not look as if it was going to cross the break.
“Save some of that for the others, Raina,” her father called, and even from that distance—he was at the head of the west break—and through the sooty air, she recognized the twinkle in his eyes. Then he turned and pointed south. “Gerda! Go!”
Raina watched her older sister leap toward another vaulting flame, beating it out before it had a chance. It was almost a game, really, a game of chicken. Who would win, the flames or the Olsens? So far, in ten years of homesteading, the Olsens had come out victorious every time.
Gerda smiled triumphantly, waving back at Raina, the outside row of vulnerable wheat, only a few inches tall, between them. At times like this, when the air was so stifling and smoky, Raina didn’t feel quite so small, quite so inconsequential as when the air was clear. On a cool, still early summer morning, the prairie could make her feel like the smallest of insects, trapped in a great dome of endless pale blue sky, the waving grasses undulating, just like the sea, against an unbroken horizon. But Gerda, Raina knew, never felt this way. Gerda was stronger, bigger. Gerda was untouchable, even from the prairie fires that flared up regularly in Nebraska, spring and fall. Gerda would know what to do in the face of fire, or ice. Or men. Gerda—
Gerda wasn’t here.
Raina blinked, gaped at the McGuffey Reader in her hand. She wasn’t on the prairie; she was in a schoolhouse. Her schoolhouse. The second class was droning the lesson:
God made the little birds to sing,
And flit from tree to tree;
’Tis He who sends them in the spring
To sing for you and me.
Raina sat straighter, tried to stretch her neck but it was no use; she was smaller than the biggest boy sitting in the last row of benches. Her pupils—precious minds that were hers to form, or so she’d been told in the letter accompanying her certificate. But the oldest one was fifteen, only a year younger than she. And the way he looked at her made her shiver, made her think of a well that was so deep, the bottom would always remain a mystery.
No, it wasn’t this boy’s eyes that made her think that; this boy’s eyes were blue, his gaze was measured, and if there was a wildness in them—only at times, for he was a well-brought-up lad—it was a wildness she believed she could tame.
His eyes were chocolate brown and soft with an understanding Raina had never before felt she needed. Until she first beheld that fathomless gaze.
Gerda would not feel so silly. Gerda would not allow herself to be so—understandable. But Gerda was teaching in her own school across the border into Dakota Territory, three days’ drive away, and boarding with a family there. A family not at all like the Pedersens, with whom Raina found herself sharing a roof, food, and air that was becoming too polluted with glances, sighs, and tears. And beds, beds upstairs, beds downstairs. Beds without borders, without walls, too exposed to those glances and sighs.
Her mother should have prepared her for this, Raina sometimes thought. Her mother should have taught her, warned her as she used to warn Raina not to wander into the tallgrass prairie when she was little, not to touch a hot stove, not to eat the pokeweed berries that flowered late in summer; her mother should have prevented her—
From what? From going out into the world? That was the dream her mother most cherished: that Raina and Gerda would never have to homestead, that they could go to college, then live and teach in a city someday. But life in this new country was hard and expensive and they had no relatives to act as a cushion. First, the two girls had to teach and save their wages.
Her mother couldn’t have prevented this, and Raina knew it. Her mother had met her father when they were barely out of childhood. Her mother was soft and childlike, in the best way—she loved to sing songs and make up games as she went about her work. Her mother wasn’t meant for homesteading, for harsh environments and cruel blows; the entire family, Raina and Gerda included, tried to protect her as best they could in this elemental place, a place of life and death and not much in between except backbreaking work.
As for her father—well, she couldn’t even meet his eyes on the weekends he came to take her home. Steffen Olsen was a man but he was a god, too, a Norse god, untouchable, unknowable except in wise words and stupendous feats of physical labor. He could tie a mile-long barbed-wire fence in half a day. He could plant an entire field of wheat in twice that time. He could eat enormous meals and at sundown fall into a blameless sleep that would leave him refreshed and ready to go at first light.
Her father was not a man but a myth.
Gunner Pedersen, however, was real: flesh, blood, sinew. He was a man in the way her father was not, a man to dream about, to hunger for. To imagine in your arms. A man who would pause in his work to tell a funny story to a frightened girl boarding out for the very first time. A man who would fill a glass with cattails and prairie grass, because he thought it looked pretty, and present it to her without a word, only a kind look that told her he knew how lonely she must be.
A man with a wife who saw these things and stored them up. The way Raina stored them up, as well. But for what purpose? Neither woman, at least in the beginning, could answer that.
After this past week, however . . .
A sound like a thunderclap startled her. Little Anette Pedersen had dropped her reader on the floor; the girl jerked her head up, a red spot on her cheek where she must have been pressing it against the desk. She had probably fallen asleep again.
This was another thing no one had prepared Raina for; it hadn’t been covered in any of the textbooks or on the examination she’d passed with flying colors. In all her studying, she had never come across what to do if one of your pupils was so mistreated and overworked, she fell asleep during class.
Raina stood; the children all put away their readers and looked up at her. Carefully, in her best, most precise English, she instructed the children to go outside for recess; the weather was warm enough, this January day, for them to get some fresh air. It was so unexpected, this gift of a day, the temperature hovering around thirty degrees, the sun shining so brightly this morning although it was turning cloudy now. It would do everyone good to play outside.
Raina could never tell if all the children understood her; she longed to talk to them in Norwegian, even to the Swedes and the Germans, because surely they’d pick out a word or two, these languages were so similar. But the school superintendent had warned her that this was the most important rule for a prairie schoolteacher: English only. These children of immigrants had to learn; their parents could not teach them.
The children rose, dutifully went to the cloakroom—just a tiny shed, no bigger than a broom closet tacked on to the main room—and brought out their light coats. It had been so warm this morning—comparatively warm, anyway—they all had come to school clad as if it were May, not January. After the long cold snap last week that kept everyone cooped up at home, this day had a holiday feel to it. Chattering excitedly in a mixture of languages, they ran off in groups to the bare little schoolyard that the biggest boy, Tor Halvorsan, had swept without being asked. Raina was pleased to see little Fredrik Halvorsan, Tor’s younger brother, tug on Anette’s apron strings as the two of them ran off together.
Raina longed to join her pupils; it was only last year she was a pupil herself in her home district, sitting with her friends on a tree stump during recess and chatting about dress patterns and boys, occasionally allowing her dignity to fall off her like a discarded shawl to play tag with the younger students. She still felt stiff and awkward sitting alone at her desk inside while her pupils played. She should go outside and take in the fresh air herself; after the stifling nightmare of this last week, she needed it. But she felt like an intruder as the children played their games; they would grow shy whenever she ventured outside, afraid to be themselves in front of the schoolteacher.
Melanie Benjamin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, and Alice I Have Been. Benjamin lives in Chicago, where she is at work on her next historical novel.