Nebraska is notorious for its unpredictable and often extreme weather. While today we can anticipate shifts in forecast thanks to technology, those living centuries ago were subject to harsh, fickle nature. One of the worst of these dramatic episodes took place on January 12, 1888 across the Great Plains. Called the “Schoolchildren’s Blizzard,” this sudden snowstorm took the region by surprise, killing 235 people, including many trapped in schoolhouses, caught on farms, or trying to make their way back home in the storm. In his homage to those lost and those who survived, Ted Kooser wrote The Blizzard Voices, a book of poems that read like recounted memories of the event.

Bearing no other titles than “A Man’s Voice” or “A Woman’s Voice,” former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser shares brief fictional remembrances of the blizzard in free verse poetry that sound more like snippets of interviews than poems. Tales of tragedy and heroism alternate to paint a snowblinded picture of rustic life on the plains including soddies, cannonball stoves, and telegraph clerks.

In one, a boy risks his life to visit an adjacent farm to bring back blankets to his schoolhouse. In another, a boy considers himself lucky for only losing a few fingers, compared to his uncle whom they find frozen standing upright. One woman remembers the tragic fate of those who died when the wind caused their house to catch on fire, and a man recalls his sister’s birth in the early morning as the family tries to keep the snow from falling through the roof.

The most tragic tells of two brothers who were forced to camp in the snow after leaving their schoolhouse; one died in the night while the other lost his feet to frostbite while within sight of their home. The most uplifting tells of a teenage schoolteacher, Minnie Mae Freeman, who gained national fame when she saved her sixteen students after leading them blindly a half-mile to a neighbor’s house.

Written in the simple style of the Midwest similar to William Kloefkorn and Wright Morris, Kooser combines factual instances of deaths and endurance with the pithy vernacular of old-timers on the plains. These stories are perfect to curl up with in the midst of blowing snow, grateful to be warm and out of the howling winds.

The Blizzard Voices is available at Bellevue University Library, located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.

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