Melanie Benjamin’s ‘The Children's Blizzard’ Announced as 2021 One Book South Dakota

Setting of Historical Novel Includes Areas Near Yankton

Inspired by a ferocious storm that struck Dakota Territory in 1888, the 2021 One Book South Dakota is a historical novel that hits close to home.

"The Children's Blizzard," which covers events that occurred in what is now South Dakota, was announced on Tuesday, Jan. 12 as the 2021 One Book South Dakota. Author Melanie Benjamin appeared live on SDHC's Facebook page to discuss her book. Click below to watch the event.

Book Announced on Release Day, Anniversary of Blizzard

The One Book announcement coincided with the 133rd anniversary of the titular blizzard and with the release date of Benjamin's newest novel, which is based on the oral histories of the storm's survivors. On January 12, 1888, a mild day in Dakota Territory turned into a deadly blizzard. Because students had gone to school without their heavy coats, many young schoolteachers were faced with a life and death decision: allow the children to go out in the blizzard in hopes of making it home, or stay in the schoolhouse and risk being trapped?

Benjamin tells the fictional stories of sisters Raina and Gerda Olsen, schoolteachers in southeastern South Dakota and northeastern Nebraska who make very different decisions on that fateful day. Other main characters include servant girl Anette Pedersen and newspaperman Gavin Woodson.

"I'm so honored that you chose this novel that really is so much about Dakota and the Great Plains — it was set there — and about this tragedy that is so well-known and remembered today," Benjamin said. "And I couldn't be more thrilled to be able to share this with so many readers in South Dakota."

Spurring Personal Experiences and Family Lore in South Dakota

Benjamin, a New York Times bestselling author of "The Aviator's Wife" and "The Swans of Fifth Avenue," tells a thrilling story whose setting includes areas near Yankton.

"We South Dakotans have a seemingly endless supply of severe weather stories, so I have no doubt this book will spur readers to recall personal experiences and family lore," said Jennifer Widman, director of the South Dakota Festival of Books and the South Dakota Center for the Book.

"But even more than that, I hope it will spur meaningful conversations about the context of this particular storm, which took place at the height of the homestead era when survival on the Great Plains was already a struggle."

When planning the book, Benjamin said she wanted to write a true story about a historical event that was "grand and dramatic and sweeping." Benjamin, who wrote the book in the style of a thriller novel, said one reader referred to the "The Children's Blizzard" as "Stephen King meets 'Little House on the Prairie.'"

"I think the book will have a powerful emotional impact," Widman said. "By layering a fictional story on top of her extensive research, Benjamin is able to get inside her characters' minds to provide an intimate view of their struggles and explore the aftermath of the terrible choices so many of them had to make."

Since 2003, SDHC's One Book program has encouraged people across South Dakota to read and discuss the same book through the year, while the Young Readers One Book program began in 2014 to encourage youth reading and combat summer reading loss. Readers around the state, including those participating in SDHC-funded book club programs, will read and discuss Benjamin's book leading up to the 2021 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood Oct. 1-3.


This stock image (not affiliated with the book) depicts a scene reminiscent of the infamous blizzard depicted in the 2021 One Book South Dakota, "The Children's Blizzard" by Melanie Benjamin.

About Melanie Benjamin

Benjamin's previous novels include the national bestseller "Alice I Have Been," about Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland; "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb," the story of 32-inch-tall Lavinia Warren Stratton, a star during the Gilded Age; and "The Girls in the Picture," about the friendship and creative partnership between two of Hollywood's earliest female legends—screenwriter Frances Marion and superstar Mary Pickford.

Her novels have been translated in more than 15 languages, featured in national magazines such as "Good Housekeeping," "People," and "Entertainment Weekly," and optioned for film.

Benjamin is a native of the Midwest, having grown up in Indianapolis, Ind., where she pursued her first love, theater. Benjamin, a life-long reader (including being the proud winner, two years in a row, of her hometown library's summer reading program!), raised two sons before pursuing a career in writing.

After writing her own parenting column for a local magazine and winning a short story contest, Benjamin published two contemporary novels under her real name, Melanie Hauser, before turning to historical fiction.

Benjamin lives in Virginia with her husband. In addition to writing, she puts her theatrical training to good use by being a member of the "Authors Unbound" speakers bureau. When she isn't writing or speaking, she's reading. And always looking for new stories to tell.

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