Right at this very moment, it’s pretty darned cold here in Kansas, and the temperatures are just beginning to drop. We have about 3 inches of snow on the ground in Ottawa (though the drifting makes it hard to guess just how much we really got last night) and I was shoveling snow in a -10 degree wind, giving up when the fog on my fogged-up glasses froze. I love my old 1901 house, but I’m really thankful for the double-pane glass replacement windows right now. They’re not as pretty as the original double-hung wood-frame windows probably were, but I suspect even the original owners of our home would prefer the replacement windows to a cold and drafty house.
Cold weather makes me want to curl up on the couch and read, and right now, I’m binging on books about weather. Some of them are about Kansas weather, some of them are about weather on the plains, some of them are about weather on the coasts. All of them are about what happens when humans don’t understand that the earth’s weather patterns are so much bigger than we are and try to defy it. And thanks to the miracle of eReaders, online shopping, and online library services, I don’t even have to go out into the weather to read about it.
Here are some of my favorite weather books. I’d love to hear your recommendations, too!
The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin
In 1888, a powerful cold front blew across the Dakota-Nebraska Prairie, turning a comfortable winter day into a raging blizzard as children began their walks home from their rural one-room school houses. By the next morning, more than 100 children were found dead on the prairie. Laskin does an incredible job of weaving together the stories of nature, the fledgling U.S. weather service, and the lives of immigrants who didn’t understand their the weather patterns of their chosen homeland. You’ll become very attached to these children as he tells their story, and you won’t know who survived and who didn’t until the end of the book.
Blizzard! The Storm That Changed America by Jim Murphy
A few months after the Children’s Blizzard, a catastrophic blizzard hit New York. What makes this book fascinating is that it’s an account not only of the devastating storm, but also the resulting overhaul in municipal policy, such as the development of city-wide snow removal and the burying of power lines. This book was written for a YA audience, but it is a great read for adults, too.
The Great Hurricane: 1938 by Cherie Burns
Burns gives an hour-by-hour account of a powerful hurricane that took New England completely by surprise. She also paints a picture of the people on the coast that day–the wealthy in their mansions and the poor who worked in and alongside the ocean. It’s an interesting account of a bygone era as well as a cautionary tale of how vulnerable any of us–regardless of wealth or power–are when it comes to the weather.
Johnstown Flood by David McCullough
We’ve all heard about the 1889 flood that wiped out Johnstown, Pennsylvania. What most of us don’t realize is how a handful of industrialists–Andrew Carnegie, Henry Flick, and Andrew Mellon–were part of the reason why it was so devastating. More than 2,000 lives were lost when heavy rains caused the dam at their improperly maintained private lake to burst, sending a wall of water into Johnstown. This book is also an account of the newly formed American Red Cross, which was called into action to help the survivors.
And Hell Followed With It: Life and Death in a Kansas Tornado by Bonar Menninger
I’ve recommended this one before, and I’ll recommend it again. This is an well-written account of the 1966 tornado that destroyed much of Topeka, Kansas, as well as the efforts of various citizens who worked to keep the public informed of its path. It’s chilling to think about how many lives would have been lost had the radio and weather people not worked on a homegrown warning system.
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
Much like Laskin’s Children’s Blizzard, Egan’s book really demonstrates the peril of not understanding your environment. The Worst Hard Time is a powerful account of the people who moved to areas like Western Kansas, Eastern Colorado, and Western Oklahoma, and how their farming and ranching practices, combined with natural weather patterns, created the Dust Bowl. It’s an important read for anyone who wants to understand just how quickly we can alter the landscape. Also, I found my lungs seizing up just reading about all of that dust in the air.
Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather by Mike Smith
And here’s the book I’m reading now: a history of storm prediction and the development of a storm warning system, as told by meteorologist Mike Smith, who himself witnessed the Ruskin Heights Tornado. This book does not make me feel fond of the earlier leadership at the National Weather Service, who actively discouraged tornado research and the issuing of tornado warnings, but it does make me want to cheer for the meteorologists who pursued it both for science and the common good. Also, I never realized how scary flying in a plane would have been before meteorologists discovered downdrafts. Eeek.
Reblogged this on Uncarvedbooks.
These are some of my favorite weather books, too! I’ve read all but the two “Wet” books and will add them to my to-read list.
Here are a few I can recommend:
When the Sirens Were Silent: How the Warning System Failed a Community, Mike Smith. A good follow-up read to Warnings. This monograph provides additional riveting (and appalling) evidence of how flaws in the storm warning system contributed to the catastrophic death toll in Joplin.
Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, Erik Larson. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 that killed as many as 10,000 people. (The Weather Bureau was also obsessed with controlling hurricane forecasts.)
F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the 20th Century, Mark Levine. A 1974 megastorm in the central U.S. unleashed at least 148 tornados, six of them F5s.
Caught in the Path / Caught Ever After, Carolyn Glenn Brewer. Two books on the Ruskin tornado of 1957, based on oral histories of survivors. The second one is from the perspective of those who were children at the time.
I haven’t gotten to this one yet, but winter might be the best time of year to read it:
Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (Illinois), Eric Klinenberg. The week-long heat wave of 1995 that killed more than 700 people.
Wow, thanks for some wonderful recommendations, jlee! I’m adding them to my Goodreads reading list right now so I don’t lose track of them.When the Sirens Were Silent is already loaded in my Nook. Many of these titles are completely new to me, which is extra awesome.
Weather books are some of my favorite reading so I was delighted to see this blog post. I was binge-reading tornado and other disaster books this fall, and it eventually got to be too big a dose of death and destruction. But it’s a new year, and the library tells me that the copy of The Great Hurricane I requested is now in!
I have just discovered your interesting & amazing blog when someone shared the story of the O’Marra family deaths of 1903. I am heavily into genealogy & history. I will have to check into some of the books you’ve mentioned and I have read The Children’s Blizzard & The Worst Hard Times. I would read passages out loud to my husband of WHT.
I have Blizzard 1949 by Roy V. Alleman but have not read it yet.
I would like to recommend 36 Hours of Hell of E. N. Coons. His account of the school bus tragedy caused by the blizzard in April 1934 or 1935 near Towner, Colorado. My husband is not a reader but he has read this one.
Thank you, Kathy
Kathy, thanks so much for your kind words and for the book recommendations! Both titles are new to me. I’m adding them to my reading list. Thanks again.