Twentieth Century Literary Club

The September 15th meeting of the Twentieth Century Club was held at the home of Pat Hopf, who also presented the program. The Club Collect and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag were recited. Pat Hopf, the Secretary, read the minutes of the May 19, 2021 meeting. Which was the last meeting before the summer recess. Anne Tangeman presented the Treasurer’s report. 

Pat Hopf reported on The Children’s Blizzard, a historical novel written by Melanie Benjamin. It was published in 2021 and is set in Nebraska and the land known at that time as the Dakota Territory or also the Great Plains. The Great Plains were settled under the Homestead Act of 1862 which was signed into law by President Lincoln. Anyone who could afford a small filing fee was given the opportunity to own 160 acres of land. All that was required was to live on the land continuously for five years and build a liveable structure on it and then the land was theirs. Of course, this land came at the expense of the Native Americanswho had roamed it freely for thousands of years. The railroads were instrumental in getting people to settle in the Great Plains. Territories wanted to become states, railroads needed people and goods to move up and down their lines. So a great propaganda campaign was waged to get people to homestead.

In 1888, there was no National Weather Service. Weather predictions were called weather indicating. There was an array of stations, many at army forts and railroad depots. The person manning the weather station would take weather readings and telegraph them to Washington, D.C. The time it took to gather the readings, form an indication, then telegraph it back out to various stations and newspapers, meant that the indications rarely got to where they should be in a timely manner. 

The morning of January 12, 1888 was unusually mild, following a punishing cold spell. It was warm enough for the homesteaders 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 16 were suddenly faced with an impossible decision: 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?

The death toll from this January 12, 1888 blizzard is another story. Officially, the deaths from this blizzard are listed at 235, with most sources saying vaguely that most of them were children. Many felt the actual toll was much higher but the boosters did not want to scare off new immigrants, and it was difficult to take an official count. Many people didn’t report deaths. Many died after lingering illnesses brought on by the storm and were not officially counted. For many years at gatherings in the Great Plains, there were people missing fingers or ears or legs as a result of frostbite from the Great Blizzard. 

The Children’s Blizzard is based on oral histories of survivors and the novel follows the stories of Raina and Gerda Olsen, two Norwegian sisters, both schoolteachers - one becomes a hero of the storm and the other finds herself ostracized in the aftermath. It is also the story of Annette Pederson, a servant girl whose miraculous survival served as a turning point in her life and touches the heart of Gavin Woodson, a newspaperman seeking redemption. At its heart, this is a story of courage, of children forced to grow up too soon, tied to the land because of their parent’s choices. It is a story 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. 

A tentative schedule for upcoming meetings was discussed. The next meeting of the Literary Club will be Wednesday, October 20 at 2 p.m.

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