American v. Nature: Tales of Survival on the Frontier
By Jordan Schwartz
America’s history is one of relentless expansion. From the establishment of colonies in the 1600s, to the settlement of the Ohio River Valley following the Revolutionary War, to westward expansion throughout the 19th Century, to the annexation of Alaska and Hawaii, the theme of stubborn growth shone through. And for better or for worse, that dedication to continuously pushing the envelope would not let anything get in its way. Nothing stopped America’s expansion. Not native tribes, not foreign powers, and not even the fury of nature. This fundamental trait of America, alongside several others, binds together the pages of our history, but it lends itself to our literature as well. Those same themes of rugged (perhaps stupidly stubborn) exploration and progress underlie many of America’s most memorable works. This essay attempts to demonstrate how those trends interact through use of the contemporary novel The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin, a story of perseverance and responsibility on the frontier in the 1880s. This story exemplifies many of the aforementioned themes as it tells its chapter of the American experience.
As we have traveled down the road of literary history, from the 1620s to today with The Children’s Blizzard, American authors have repeatedly written about the fight against the forces of nature and the domesticating of the wild. Many of the narratives from the colonial era of American history tell about desperate fights for survival, clawing tooth and nail to make it through brutal winters. The early colony of Jamestown, for instance, was hit time after time with icy winters, each pushing its people to the edge of death. From there, as time went on, independence was declared, and the newly-formed nation expanded west, tales of nature’s ferocity continued. By the mid to late 1800s, the country had reached out from coast to coast, though civilization hadn’t yet followed. The west was a region of opportunity and hardship, as is reflected in much of the literature of the era. Bret Harte’s “The Luck of Roaring Camp” illustrates the hardship of the west well. Set in a mountainous mining camp, the story recounts how an orphaned child is adopted by the camp’s men. Eventually tragedy strikes when a monstrous flood destroys much of the camp and kills the child. The death of the child, an embodiment of hope, led to mass despair. While rather depressing, Harte’s depiction of life on the frontier was not wrong. Tough conditions like those of Roaring Camp forged the nation we know today.
The Children’s Blizzard shares a critical point with “The Luck of Roaring Camp”: children’s deaths are used to exemplify the tragedy of frontier life. In The Children’s Blizzard, a freak storm leaves small children as frozen corpses on the barren plains. Even outside of freak storms, the difficulty of living out there is made clear by substandard buildings and rustic settings. For all their flaws, the characters of The Children’s Blizzard are all quite admirable for their ability to persevere in such harsh living conditions. It really garners an appreciation for the dedication Americans showed to westward expansion during that time period.
Another work of American literature similar to The Children’s Blizzard is Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Like The Children’s Blizzard, it makes an enemy out of the bitter cold. It also casts some blame for its tragedy on the hubris of the protagonist. The main character in “To Build a Fire” is warned before his trek that going alone is dangerous, but does so anyway, believing himself to be better than the old man who had given him the advice. Because of his decision not to listen, he dies (or is extremely frostbitten, depending on which version you read). This is very similar to how, in The Children’s Blizzard, Gerda tells her students to run home in a blizzard so that she can be with her boyfriend. In both cases, self-interest is rewarded with the cruel justice of the winter.
That said, not all of American literature follows the pattern of conflict with nature. Henry David Thoreau, for example, wrote Walden and celebrated the quiet clarity of the natural world, far from the excesses of human society. He had no quarrel with nature, though that may have been because he never lived on the frontier. Mark Twain also had a different perspective. In his stories, nature was more of a companion on an adventure or a challenge than it was a threat. Just think of Tom Sawyer. That’s not to say that these books have nothing in common with The Children’s Blizzard. Walden’s contemplations on human society match up well with some of the social elements that The Children’s Blizzard hints at, and Tom Sawyer covers the ideas of a coming of age and responsibility much as The Children’s Blizzard does.
In The Children’s Blizzard, teenagers are forced to shoulder the burden of responsibility and fight for the survival of themselves and the kids under their care in an incredibly harsh environment. This story has been told countless times, for it is the story of America: behind every glorious expansion lies a desperate fight for survival.