George Will

  WASHINGTON -- When giving thanks this year, think of Lena Woebbecke. She and many others paid a terrible price for misreading the prairie sky on the afternoon of Jan. 12, 1888.

     That day was unseasonably balmy, by prairie standards -- some temperatures were in the 20s -- and many children scampered to school without coats or gloves. Then, at about the time schools were adjourning, death, in the shape of a soot-gray cloud, appeared on the horizon of Dakota Territory and Nebraska.

     In three minutes the temperature plunged 18 degrees. The next morning hundreds of people, more than 100 of them children, were dead beneath the snow drifts. David Laskin, a Seattle writer, reconstructs this tragedy in a terrifying but beautifully written new book, ``The Children's Blizzard.''

     It picks up the many threads of the story in Norway, Ukraine, Germany, Vermont and other tributaries to the river of immigration set in motion partly by the 1862 Homestead Act. In return for an $18 filing fee and five years farming, the act conferred ownership of 160 acres. By the tens of thousands the homesteaders came, to live in sod houses, heated by burning buffalo chips and twisted hay.

     Of immigrants, the saying was that the cowards stayed home and the weak died on the way. One in 10 crossing the Atlantic in steerage did die. But Laskin says ``the mystique of the Dakotas'' was such that the territory's population nearly quadrupled in the 1880s. Those who made it, with a trunk or two and the clothes on their backs, reached towns that were perishable scratches on the prairie. They got land, freedom and hope.

     And prairie fires. And grasshoppers, 100 billion at a time in roaring clouds a mile high and 100 miles across. And iron weather in which children, disoriented by horizontal streams of snow as hard as rock and fine as dust, froze to death groping their way home from a school 150 yards away.

     Lena was five in 1882 when her father, a German immigrant, died of smallpox. Her mother remarried twice, having 11 children, eight of whom survived. In August 1887 Lena, her marriage prospects diminished by her smallpox scars, was sent to live with the Woebbeckes and their three children in a two-room house. It was half a mile from the school where she was, five months later, when a cataclysmic cold front came dropping southeast out of Canada at 45 miles per hour.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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