The Children’s Blizzard

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.

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 just 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 who becomes a hero of the storm, and one who 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.

News & Awards

Starred review from Booklist
Named one of the top ten books of January by The Washington Post
Named one of the most anticipated historical novels of 2021 by Oprah Magazine
Winner of the Willa Award
Chosen as the “One Book, One South Dakota” for 2021
January Indie Next Pick
January Library Reads


“Compelling… In this piercingly detailed drama, riveting in its action and psychology, Benjamin reveals the grim aspects of homesteading, from brutal deprivations to violent racism toward Native Americans and African Americans, while orchestrating, with grace and resonance, transformative moral awakenings and sustaining love.”
Booklist, Starred Review

“Benjamin revisits the Children’s Blizzard that killed 235 people in January 1888 in this sprawling, well-told story. As the children from two Great Plains schools prepare to leave at the end of an unusually mild winter day, Benjamin focuses on the different choices made by their teachers—first-generation Norwegian American sisters Gerda and Raina Olsen, a three-day ride apart from each other across the Nebraska-Dakota border—while the storm approaches with dark clouds and strong winds. Meanwhile, jaded newspaperman Gavin Woodson is torn between opportunism—he knows he’s found a great story that can punch his ticket back to N.Y.C.—and romanticism…. [T]here’s great suspense inherent to the events. Benjamin achieves a balance of grand drama and devastatingly intimate moments.”
Publishers Weekly

“Melanie Benjamin never fails to create compelling, unforgettable characters and place them against the backdrop of startling history. Faced with an unforeseen challenge, two sisters make opposite choices, with life-altering and devastating results.”
—Lisa Wingate, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“In this atmospheric novel, as relentlessly paced as a thriller, Melanie Benjamin turns her expert eye to the brutal realities of life on the prairie in the late 19th century. You experience the encroaching storm from many perspectives, and as you get to know these immigrant characters, with their distinct personalities and predicaments, you’ll learn about how race and class shaped their destinies—and, in the process, understand something important about the tenacity of the human spirit and our capacity for both unkindness and grace. I challenge you not to shiver as you turn the pages.”
—Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“With The Children’s Blizzard, Melanie Benjamin reminds us not only of her tremendous talent but that immigrant stories are at the heart of American history. Benjamin weaves a moving and uplifting tale of courage, family, and sacrifice. You’ll find yourself cheering for her characters as they make difficult, heart-wrenching choices that are always rooted in love. I loved this poignant page-turner!”
—Jean Kwok, bestselling author

“Wrap yourself up in a blanket and get ready to be transported into one of the most astonishing tragedies you’ve never heard of—a massive blizzard that devastated the lives of prairie homesteaders in 1888. Melanie Benjamin draws you into the lives, hardships, and triumphs of a diverse cast of characters and compels you to care about them deeply. The Children’s Blizzard has a pulse-pounding pace, a giant heart, and a sweep as wide as the prairie itself.”
—Elizabeth Letts, New York Times bestselling author

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