In 1886, school teacher Mariel Erickson leaves the civilized comforts of Chicago for a small Dakota prairie town, but she’s unprepared for the hardships she encounters. As if battling unruly children, harsh weather, destitute Indians, and shady frontier politics weren’t enough, she soon finds herself embroiled in the town’s first murder case.
In full view of five witnesses, liveryman Clyde Hartwig murders an Irish immigrant with a base-ball bat. By all appearances, the victim was a decent and hardworking family man. Or was he? Rumors circulate that he made bombs for the Fenian Brotherhood. Was Hartwig protecting everyone from a terrorist? Hired by the town’s fledgling newspaper, Mariel must get the killer’s story before he is forever silenced by the hangman’s rope.
Hartwig’s January trial promises to be a grand spectacle, the town’s finest ever. Little does anyone realize a much deadlier force approaches, one which will reveal how capricious life on the prairie can be.
Early Reviews for A Killing Snow
In July of 1886, Lt. Randall Erickson of the Army Signal Corps and his wife Mariel along with Bruno, their aging and malodorous but beloved mutt, arrive in the small town of Goss Valley in what is now South Dakota, then the Dakota Territory. Erickson had arranged a transfer from Chicago with the assistance of an old Civil War buddy, the asthmatic, crusty but ever helpful Mike Hammon, a survivor of the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp in Andersonville, Georgia commanded by the equally notorious Henry Wirz, the only Civil War veteran executed for war crimes. Second Lieutenant Erickson is a weather forecaster, referred to as giving “indications” then, the forerunner of modern meteorology handled by the Signal Corps. Exactly why Erickson, a veteran of thirty years’ service – and a West Point graduate at that – holds the lowest commissioned rank in the army is a mystery reserved for later in the narrative.
Goss Valley was founded by Herb Goss, the town’s inebriate mayor, postmaster and publisher and editor of the town’s newspaper, the Goss Valley Sentinel. At the time Mariel meets Goss, the mayor and town council are preoccupied with a fight to return the county seat to Goss Valley after having lost the distinction a couple years previously to another small prairie town. Goss seems to pursue this as much as a matter of personal pride as for its financial and political advantages. Mariel is a social progressive and bit of a proto-feminist who aspires to a career in journalism. To that effect, she lobbies Goss for opportunities to write for his paper, and writings of more substance than mere women’s fluff pieces, to the chagrin of her husband, the more conventional and staid army officer. Mariel eschews prejudice against immigrants and even American Indians whom she yearns to help in their often desperate plight. Here Erickson puts his foot down having a seemingly irrational disdain for the “noble savage” and pegs up his wife’s contrary views to misguided romanticism. He staunchly forbids her to visit the Crow Indian reservation some miles away, an edict Mariel is destined to disobey to the detriment of their marital relations.
The first townsman the Ericksons meet is Clyde Hartwig, a drayman (one who drove a horse drawn, buckboard-like vehicle; then regardless of cargo and not just beer as the term was later identified), whom Hammon hires to meet the Ericksons at the nearest railroad station some miles away and transport to Goss Valley along with their luggage. Hartwig also sells a hardy variety of wheat seed better able than other strains to withstand the vicissitudes of the harsh Dakota climate, as well as dabbling in the Chicago grain futures markets. Mariel takes an instant dislike to the young, profane Hartwig, a mutual antipathy that will feature prominently in the novel. He drives them to the hotel managed by Mike Hammon and his wife Phoebe for a local widow until the newcomers’ house is ready for them to take up residence. Mike and Phoebe had each been married previously, both having lost their spouses. Phoebe’s late husband had been an army surgeon during the war. She had sometimes accompanied him as a civilian aide. Her moving journal account of the death during the Battle of Gettysburg of a Confederate soldier greatly impresses Mariel in light of her journalistic aspirations. She later urges Mike Hammon to share his wartime exploits, especially his ordeal at Andersonville and his daring escape, that she knows Goss had been hankering to print to no avail as Hammon stubbornly refuses to open up about that period of his eventful life.
As the Ericksons acclimate to their new surroundings, Mariel is delighted with an offer by Mayor Goss to become the town’s new schoolmarm, a position in which she has experience. As the Hammons are living at the hotel while managing it, they generously offer their own house for the school. Mariel is urged by the town’s women folk to join their Fragment Society, a charity that ostensibly sews clothes for the destitute but which Mariel soon learns to her dismay is little more than a gossip society. She has frequent run-ins with the other ladies due to their obvious prejudice against Indians and the Irish, most especially an Irish immigrant couple with a ponderous brood of children. As a result, she has the first of a series of run-ins with Hartwig’s wife Louisa which threatens her professional position. Hartwig had taken a violent dislike to Liam and Bridget Blackford and their thirteen kids. The Blackfords are not just Irish Catholics, but also Travelers, indigenous Irish who lead Gypsy-like existences in the old sod. Like Gypsies, they have an unsavory reputation for thefts and scams. However, after having lost a child (of which Mariel learns of in a manner which she finds both macabre and traumatic considering her own family’s past), the Blackfords decided to break with the old ways and now seek to homestead in the new land. Liam Blackford is somewhat mysterious as to how he manages to support his prodigious family, a question that eventually might be answered by the appearance in town of another newcomer of a seemingly sinister bent named Cowan whom Liam Blackford introduces as his cousin notwithstanding the former being Scottish, a claim regarded dubiously by others. The friction engendered between the interactions of Hartwig and Blackford ultimately boils over into a sensational crime (for the era and place) and a trial that threatens to turn scandalous in the hands of a respected defense attorney.
The novel unfolds as an intriguing slice of period Americana on the plains. The reader is treated to historically accurate descriptions of an Indian reservation, a Jesuit mission and missionaries; the trials and tribulations of small town people trying to survive in often adverse circumstances in an unforgiving climatic environment long before central heating and indoor plumbing. The characterizations are rich with heroism and foibles and contain often amusing incidents juxtaposed against tragedies of almost Biblical proportions. The title is derived from the historically accurate blizzard of January 12, 1888, often referred to as “The Children’s Blizzard,” which appeared suddenly (defying Erickson’s prediction to the contrary) and dropped a ponderous amount of blinding, fluffy snow that resulted in the deaths of many children trying to make their way home from school on the Great Plains and costs Mariel part of a leg after an attempted rescue of students.
Authors David Hoing and Roger Hileman are coauthors of Hammon Falls, a novel set somewhat later in Iowa and which title is taken from the name of the nephew of Mike Hammon of this novel, a town’s real estate baron and local potentate; so perhaps this portends a series of loosely connected historical novels. The narrative unfolds between 1886 and 1900 with the innovation (which some might find gimmicky) of presenting the final chapter first, rendering the balance of the novel as a flashback by Mariel Erickson, its principal protagonist, from whose point of view the entire novel is presented; also somewhat unusual (and effective here). The authors meticulously draw from period source materials such as diaries, and the town of Goss Valley is patterned after Gann Valley, South Dakota, which with a population of fourteen renders it the smallest county seat in the United States. A Killing Snow is a superlative literary effort of historical fiction, related in a compelling style of prose, well worth the time of readers interested in such historically riveting fare. The reader does indeed appreciate the feeling of “being there” in an age not all that long ago, yet seemingly strangely exotic to people of contemporary values and marvels of material and technological innovations so alien to those who lived then.
Donald Schneider, reviewer, Midwest Review of Books
A strong, smart, visionary heroine is hard to find, but the first place I’d look is in historical fiction by Iowa duo Dave Hoing and Roger Hileman.
“A Killing Snow” is inspired by the tragic blizzard of 1888, “a nice dramatic backdrop for a novel,” this writing duo thought. So did the unpublished memoirs Roger had in his possession from his great-great-uncle Michael Hileman Jr., who lived from 1820 to 1915. Hileman and Hoing had always wanted to find a venue to incorporate Michael’s story, and when they noticed in his memoirs that he had experienced the blizzard firsthand, they found it.
Uprooted from Chicago, aspiring journalist Mariel Erickson makes the best of her new life in the mostly fictional location Goss Valley, a small town on the Dakota prairie, in the mid-1800s. Her husband Randall has a passion for meteorology and high-tech (for the times) equipment he checks daily in order to give weather reports, and out here, the weather is every kind of harsh. So are the local homesteaders with their shunning of Irish immigrants. Back then, the Irish were a hated minority, but not as hated as the natives, impoverished Indians displaced from their homes. Mariel and a priest seem to be the only people who care about their minority neighbors. Her boss is a chronic drunk, but he teaches Mariel how to run a printing press and put out a newspaper. The story she covets most is that of a Civil War soldier who survived imprisonment in Andersonville, but Mike Hammon won’t talk about it, and who can blame him? Still, Mariel has to extract the details from him, and get permission to publish them. Conflicts and richly developed characters lead to subplots grounded solidly in historical records.
Goss Valley’s first murder case, for example, is so unbelievable, the authors may have had no choice but to explain its real-life counterpart in their “Afterward: Fiction and History.” (More on that in a minute.)
With the ring of authenticity emanating from the most unbelievable events (which all too often really happened), Hoing and Hileman write historical fiction so believable, you’d swear the authors have been alive since before the Civil War. The prose is spare, poetic, and vivid. I’m amazed at the research that allows them to casually narrate so many everyday details from a life we no longer live. The printing press alone is a masterpiece. So is the cash register. I’ve blogged about some of this at carolkean at wordpress.com.
In the Afterward, they explain that Herb Goss is loosely based on Herb Gann, who founded Gann Valley in 1883. The tragic blizzard of Thursday, January 12, 1888, is better known as “The Children’s Blizzard” and is the subject of various books. Mike Hammon is based on Michael Hileman, the great-great uncle of co-author Roger Hileman.
Okay: the murder. In Marion, Iowa, in 1847, a farmer named James Carnagy was clubbed by James Reed in view of witnesses. Carnagy dies of these injuries a month later. It took a year for the case to go to trial, and when it did, the killer was acquitted by a jury who dismissed the incident as “an old feud fueled by drink.”
Historical fiction is brutal because it so often springs from outrage over events like that one. One of the consolations of reading this genre is seeing how times have changed for the better. Then again, people do not change all that much from age to age. Some of the scenes ring true today as much as they did a century earlier, before women were “liberated.” While husband Randall is a fine, intelligent man, an accomplished pianist, and more, he resents Mariel’s independent thinking to the point that he’d physically chastise her for it. Mariel puts him in his place, but it isn’t much of a victory.
On a related note, today as well as then, some husbands play the invalid, moping about, expecting to be waited on. Women can be just as guilty of exploiting their husbands, I know, but as a woman reader, I wince and cringe for Mariel.
The same sins and virtues go on, and on, and gifted storytellers bring them to life as if these stories had never been told before.
Page after page, I was grinding my teeth, wincing and shaking my fist at people in 19th Century Nebraska. All long dead. Good riddance! Then again, there were so many good people, like Mariel Erickson, giving everyone a fair chance, even the man who killed a family man and got away with murder. Then again… karma comes round, and Nature delivers a blow to the killer.
It’s so hard for me to discuss the fine points, insights, nuances and developments of a novel without that “SPOILER” risk (yes, I’ve been accused of it, chronically). However, we know from page one that Mariel Erickson is still angry twelve years after Clyde Hartwig, killed an Irishman and hardly anyone cared.
“What’re these people to you, ma’am?” one local asks Mariel. The dead man’s “brood” is “just another family of filthy immigrants.”
The “filthy” family are not just Irish, but Travellers as well, a group as shunned and mistrusted as the Romani “Gypsies.” That murdered man may have some shady secrets, but does that mean his killer did the town a favor? Land of the free, home of the brave—unless the jury just doesn’t like you.
Knowing the town folk, it chills my heart when James, a full-blooded Crow Indian, enters Mariel’s classroom. Ahead of her time, Mariel laments “the lifestyle his people had had to abandon in order to assimilate into white society.” There’s a story she could tell him, e.g., she knows his Crow name is Howling Dog, but Mariel is a woman of discretion and sensitivity.
Deep down, after so many years, so many deaths, Mariel seethes with anger at all the injustice she’s witnessed. This does not make for the most uplifting of endings – fans of the genre, you have been warned—but it does make for great literature.
Carol Kean, reviewer, Perihelion
It’s hard to beat a good pioneer story. You have people who are somewhat—or maybe completely—isolated by choice, facing a climate more harsh than any they had seen before, and still dealing with the challenges of being human in the development of family and community. A Killing Snow is a wonderful addition to pioneer literature. The characters are flawed—like other humans. In the very small community of Goss Valley, Dakota Territory, people are often thrown together with others they wouldn’t have associated with back East, and either have to make the best of it, or not. Both courses have consequences.
The descriptions are lovely, and place the reader in the Dakota Territory of the late 1880s, suffering through the extremes of winter and summer and relishing the beautiful days in between. A murder of a shunned immigrant by a reviled citizen would not be expected to polarize the community or weave itself into unrelated events, but it does because of the complex relationships among the characters. Hoing and Hileman do a great job of defining and elaborating the context of the times: a couple of decades after the Civil War, the height of immigration, the beginnings of modern technology (the post office gets a telephone but it is useless for the time being because no one else has one.) A wonderful and enjoyable read.
Karen Nortman, author of The Time Travel Trailer
Mariel is a schoolteacher who emigrates to the Dakota Territory at the time of initial European dominance. A Killing Snow engages us as we see Mariel’s determined efforts to adapt to her new environment. The authors take the reader back 130 years, there to see characters facing a set of circumstances and challenges radically different from those of our digital age.
As a reader of biographies, histories, and many sorts of novels, I found quite a bit to enjoy in A Killing Snow. And while I’m not accustomed to chapter titles, these struck me as engaging and useful. I can see why these were once the norm.
The reader moves briskly through the story, following Mariel’s observations and experiences, including several traumatic recollections from her husband Randall and his Civil War buddy Mike Hammon. Her students are vulnerable young people experiencing the troubles of youth, while the many adults with whom Mariel interacts have a multitude of their own problems, many resulting from their clashing cultures. A Killing Snow does a nice job, a well-practiced job, of depicting all of the above.
William Tate, author of Dark Strides
A Killing Snow is a fine piece of historical fiction weaving factual descriptions of small town pioneering life in the Dakota Territory in the 1880’s and fictional characters who represent the hard-won struggle for survival in an often harsh landscape. Reading like part Little House On The Prairie and part Hamlin Garland’s Middle Border series of books, co-authors David Hoing and Roger Hileman have painstakingly put together a challenging cast of characters and motivations, from the unlikable Clyde Hartwig to the idealistic (at first) Mariel Erickson and the large Irish Blackford family, the reader is pulled into the narrative slowly but surely. Incidents occur and lives are changed, especially when the ‘Children’s Blizzard’ of January 12, 1888 suddenly strikes from out of nowhere and causes great hardship for the town of Goss Valley and the surrounding farms. A Killing Snow should be on any bookshelf of historical fiction dealing with the Upper Midwest in the late 19th century.
James P. Roberts, author of Famous Wisconsin Authors