The Children’s Blizzard
By Anna Eversdyke
The book The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin tells a story about a blizzard in Nebraska in 1888 and follows how children and their schoolteachers (most of whom were no more than children themselves) fought to survive it. The main characters, sisters Raina and Greta, take very different paths in their fight to get their schoolroom to safety. Throughout the story, Benjamin shows how the loss of innocence and blissful ignorance can be either detrimental or life saving, how harshly society views women, and all while showing an overarching theme of the pursuit of the so-called “American Dream.” The writing of Benjamin and her characters can be compared to that of the writing and characterization of Kate Chopin’s characters.
These sisters can also be related to women from other stories in American literature. The younger sister Raina can be seen as naive in the beginning of the story. She is a young school teacher entrapped in what she believes is a romantic relationship with a married man. When the storm starts, she even believes he will come to save her. Raina is very similar to another character: Désirée from “Désirée’s Baby,” by Kate Chopin. Both Désirée and Raina went through events that caused an immediate change in their characters. For Raina, it was when she realized she had the lives of the schoolchildren in her hands and that Gunner (the previously mentioned married man) wasn’t coming to save her. This is a very important moment in Raina's character arc because it is when she takes the situation into her own hands. She ventures out into the storm with the children and gets them to safety. She no longer sees herself as a child and can look back at how foolish and naive she was only a day ago. Désirée also has a moment of realization but in a very different way: She realizes that her husband truly doesn’t want her around after he believes that she is the reason for their baby being part black. This causes her to drown herself and the baby, a very large leap from the happy young mother readers get at the very beginning of “Désirée’s Baby.” Both of these characters go through major changes in their character development that is the result of a loss of innocence or the loss of blissful ignorance.
The older sister Gerda is seemingly more experienced and wiser than Raina at the beginning of the story. We read how Raina looks up to Gerda and believes that she would know what to do in every situation. Gerda, however, doesn’t acknowledge the storm as an obstacle until she is in immediate danger. Gerda, readers learn, longs for love and perhaps adventure. She loves Tiny for his desire to be something other than the farm boy everyone expects him to be. This is even why she dismisses the school early on that fateful day, to spend time alone with him. She can be compared to the character Calixta from Kate Chopin's “The Storm.” Calixta and Gerda both prioritized their own wants and desires over others, which was heavily looked down upon by society during their own time periods, especially as women. Gerda was openly shamed for letting the kids out of school early during the storm and is said to be the reason for their deaths.
I think Benjamin did this on purpose with the knowledge that readers would get upset on Gerda’s behalf. Gerda is seventeen in the novel, so for many adults and teens reading it, the idea of someone that young being put in a situation where she holds the responsibility of all of their lives is outrageous and should make readers mad. This is especially true when we later see the disappointment from her father, who we can see as a mirror to Gerda. Both she and her father desire to be something bigger than what’s expected of them; it is what caused her father to move to America and what caused Gerda to fall for Tiny. Benjamin doesn’t even try to give Gerda an excuse as to why she let the children out early; the readers know it was for selfish intent. And yet (at least to me) the readers are struck with a sense of sorrow for Gerda. She fought with everything she had when her eyes were finally opened to the life-or-death situation. She tried her hardest to save the two girls she was with, and suffered greatly from frostbite. She should be seen as a victim. In another world she would still be a student in that school and the townspeople wouldn’t have a reason to hate her, but she was hated by the townspeople as they blamed her for the death of the children. Calixta, on the other hand, had relations with a man outside marriage and faced no consequences. This was widely frowned upon by Chopin's readers at the time. Despite the obvious differences between the characters, they both could show that when women or young girls don’t meet the standards or ideals set by society, their value and therefore society’s ability to sympathize with them decline.
Of all the characters in the novel arguably the most complex is Gavin Woodson, whose job is to convince people to move out to the prairie despite knowing the false advertisement he’s selling. He captures interest with posters expressing the large amounts of land and reels in foreigners with propaganda about how anyone can become wealthy with hard work in America. The appeal of this “American Dream” is very much sought after by foreigners, and many are willing to give up everything to chase it. Gavin does not see the value in his job anymore, as he no longer enjoys the writing he once cherished. He doesn’t like the fact that he convinces people to come to Omaha but still does his job well. Readers see a change in Gavin when he decides he can’t tell more lies to cover up the disaster of the storm. This shows the metaphorical slap in the face Gavin gets to finally do what it is he wants, and he goes out to record stories of heroes and tragedies of the storm.
Throughout “The Children’s Blizzard” by Melanie Benjamin, Raina shows how quickly the loss of innocence can change a character, Gerda shows the severity of which responsibilities that were set on young girls in this time, and Gavin Woodson shows how even after becoming seemingly numb to emotion, true passion can still win out.