Books for the last three weeks: two more disaster books, and a play.

I think I’m almost off my disaster-book jag here, but I had two more on my stack and decided to read them as a follow-up to A Wall of White and Into Thin Air.

Week 28, The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin: intermittently gripping, so grade B+.

This is an account of the January 12, 1888 blizzard that swept down through Minnesota and the Dakota Territory into Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. 9780060520762 It killed hundreds of people, including scores of children who had been sent home from school when bad weather loomed and were caught on the prairie by the storm. Vivid descriptions of the catastrophe, including this quote from a South Dakota man who saw the blizzard approach:

We were all out playing in our shirt sleeves, without hats or mittens. Suddenly we looked up and saw something coming rolling toward us with a great fury from the northwest, and making a loud noise. It looked like a long string of big bales of cotton, each one bound tightly with heavy cords of silver, and then all tied together with great silvery ropes. The broad front of these cotton bales looked to be about twenty-five feet high; above them it was perfectly clear.

An excellent step-by-step account of the storm; once I got halfway through, I was engaged enough to stay up late finishing it. The book did suffer a bit from awkward backstory insertion, particularly right at the beginning before the reader’s attention was thoroughly seized; right after the preface, Laskin goes all the way back to Scandinavia before the Norwegian immigrants leave for the American prairies. He nearly lost me there. Plus, he halts the narrative way too long to tell us all about nineteenth-century methods of predicting the weather. But his story is definitely worth a read, and the conclusion told me something I didn’t know about the Great Plains of today:

Out-migration is on the rise once more. Nearly 70 percent of the counties in the Great Plains states have fewer people now than they did in 1950. These days nearly one million acres of the plains are so sparsely populated that they meet the condition of frontier as defined by the Census Bureau in the nineteenth century….Indian and buffalo populations have now reached levels that the region has not seen since the 1870s….in large stretches of the prarie it’s beginning to look like European agricultural settlement is a completed chapter of history. “It’s time for us to acknowledge one of America’s greatest mistakes,” wrote Nicholas D. Kristof on the op-ed page of the New York Times, “a 140-year-old scheme that has failed at a cost of trillions of dollars, countless lives and immeasurable heartbreak: the settlement of the Great Plains.” The blizzard of January 12, 1888, was an early sign of that mistake.

Fascinating. Intend to find out a little more about this. (Is Kristof’s view peculiar to him, or shared by others?)

Week 29: Forever on the Mountain by James M. Tabor. Grade: B-. Or maybe C+. forever-on-the-mountain I really, really wanted to like this book, which is a carefully researched account of the 1967 expedition to Mount McKinley in which seven men died and no rescue was launched. It was clear and interesting but Tabor’s style drove me nuts. He uses the present tense for much of his retelling, which fits chick lit better than history, even recent history. It obscures the distinction between what Tabor knows and what he guesses, and it also forces him to make strained use of past and future tenses: here’s a passage describing the doomed expedition in the middle of the storm:

Fatigue and altitude are dragging all of Jerry’s men down. They have been without food and water probably for twenty-four hours now. Jerry may think vaguely of trying to take off his boots and massage his feet, but the effort required will seem insurmountable….Jerry will understand better than the others what is happening, having learned more about high-altitude and cold-weather physiology during his Antarctic training. He will not say this to his friends, because he doesn’t want to frighten them, but Jerry must know that if the storm doesn’t break soon, some of them will be unable to move and could die right here. Given the way he’s feeling, he could well be one of them.

Those tense shifts are so weird (to my ear, anyway) that I had to stop and puzzle them out right when I should have been transported by the story. Plus, Tabor further confuses the issue when he refers to present-day interviews he conducted with the survivors. Those also go back and forth between past and present tense. Additional distraction: Tabor uses quotation marks for dialogue which he can validate, and no quotation marks for dialogue he’s inventing…something which I didn’t figure out until the very end of the book. Bottom line: not as effective as it could have been.

Week 30: The Invention of Love, by Tom Stoppard. Grade: Er. Um. I have no idea.9780802135810

I picked this up on a whim because I have fond memories of reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead about fifty times in college, and because I haven’t read a play since I finished writing the drama section in The Well-Educated Mind. Possibly my play-reading skills are rusty. But man, did I struggle with this one, which I’m tempted to think is only going to appeal to Brits over fifty. It was premiered in the U.S. in 2000 (with James Cromwell in the leading role). I have to wonder what that was like. I mean, with lines such as “Affability is only suffering the fools gladly, and Cambridge afford endless scope for this peculiar joy. I introduced creme brulee to Trinity, but if that isn’t enough I’ll talk to people. Do you still ride a bicycle?”

I have a stack of new plays to read, though, so maybe I’ll revisit this one once I’m back into drama-mode.

Showing 8 comments
  • Jane

    I love your book reviews. I have enjoyed reading some of the ones you mentioned in past posts.

    The one about the prairie blizzard sounds fascinating. I think Lois Lenski wrote about that blizzard in her book, Prairie School, which I read aloud to my sons when they were younger. My husband had heard the same thing about the settlement of the prairies (here in Canada we use that humbler term instead of “Great Plains”) — that it was a huge and costly mistake — so I had to look up the articles by Kristof. They are waiting for me on the office printer.

    Looking forward to future reviews!

  • Christina

    I thought the same thing when I read that last paragraph you quoted from “The Children’s Blizzard”-fascinating. (I mean I read it on your blog…)
    And then your second-to-last paragraph made me laugh out loud.
    Oh my, I’ve got to take the time to read.
    This is totally irrelevant, but I would love to be a writer, and I’ve started something which my husband found while transferring our blog, and he read a bit of it. He said it made him want to know more. I thought that was very exciting. Anyway, you are a great writer…I can only aspire!

  • Sarah

    As an under-50 Brit, I didn’t think “The Invention of Love” was one of Stoppard’s better plays 🙂

    I *loved* “Travesties”, though, which I can read over and over again. And I also liked “Arcadia” and “The Real Inspector Hound” very much.

  • Bob Zender

    I didn’t know population levels had dropped low enough to qualify as frontier by the 19th century definition. I live in Kansas and we talk about the future of our central and western towns all the time. Personally I think we’re facing sustained declines in the size and vigor of our isolated communities, regardless of attempts to stem the population flow through public policy. But I find Nicholas Kristof’s quote absolutely ridiculous, full of melodramatic pap and revealing a thought process which can charitably be described as lazy. He sounds like an over-earnest high school sophomore.

  • Brandi

    Thanks for doing the reviews! I loved “Into Thin Air” and look forward to “The Children’s Blizzard.” I won’t try the other one…that writing style would bug me too.

  • Joseph McBee

    Quick question (although there may not be a quick answer): You mentioned your “stack” of plays and your “stack” of books to read; how do you choose which books make it into those stacks?

    I create a reading list for myself at the end of each year for the following year. That list may morph somewhat over the course of the year, but it stays relatively the same.

    I am just curious as to how you go about choosing the works you read. is there a method to the madness?


    PS – I love you blog and I adore The Well-Educated Mind, it was the book that restarted me on a path of self-education.

  • Linda

    Ahhhh, I love it when an authors from the coasts (in this case Seattle and New York) attempt to give prospective on the Great Plains. When they do…they end up sounding both ignorant and arrogant. The paragraph quoted reminded me of a blog entry, I recently read. The post was written by a California blogger who had traveled across the Midwest on summer vacation. She wrote, “The Dakotas and Wyoming gave new meaning to the word empty.” The photo she posted was of a beautiful field of durum wheat. As a resident of North Dakota, who takes enormous pride in my state…I had to wonder…where do Nicholas Kristof, David Laskin, and the California blogger believe their food comes from? 90% of the durum wheat produced in the world is grown in the Dakotas. (Translation…if you’ve had pasta this week, regardless of where it was produced, the durum wheat, the wheat used in pasta production most likely came from “America’s greatest mistake”) If you had corn flakes with sugar for breakfast lately…thank a midwestern farmer, for the corn and the sugar beets for your table.

    Have the authors spent much time wondering about the part advances in agriculture in the need for fewer souls working the land? Thirty years ago, when I was in high school, boys and girls alike spent the summers hauling bails for local farmers. Driving up and down row after row and tossing forty-pound bails. Those small bundles have been replaced by large round bails which are far less labor intensive to haul. To those of us who populate the plains it seems like a DUH! Moment….technology has made farming more productive with less man power…which resulted in out migration…that is a success story…..what we like to call progress!

    The land of the “America’s greatest mistake” or at least the portion I know best North Dakota…. Is a land of the highest literacy rate in the country, and the lowest violent crime rate. It is the only state in the country with a budget surplus of over one BILLION dollars. A state where when the Red River of the North flooded and FEMA pushed to evacuate the entire city of Fargo…the city pushed back convinced if we were not here to fight but depended on the feds instead, we would lose. North Dakota boasts the only state run bank in the nation, a bank which issued the first federally insured student loan.

    To paraphrase, ABC news….If you want to criticize the plains you’d better be from the Great Plains. That’s why ABC once named a plain state as their person of the week.

  • Susan

    I am SO glad to see residents of the plains states responding. As a life-long resident of an agricultural county too often mis-portrayed, I’m fascinated by the difference between local perceptions and pronouncements of those on the outside. In this case, way outside. Keep the comments coming.

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