Louise Erdrich on Blizzards and Vulnerability

Your story “The Hollow Children” follows the journey of a school bus caught in a terrible blizzard in North Dakota in 1923. Did you draw on historical accounts of similar incidents?

I have so many books and historical accounts of blizzards that I get eye rolls when there’s yet another one on the kitchen table. “One to Remember: The Relentless Blizzard of March 1966” is on top of the pile. “The Hollow Children” was inspired by all sorts of accounts, but especially the real blizzard of 1923. April blizzards are particularly swift and often lethal; we had a big one just this year, 2022.

Have you yourself experienced a blizzard as severe as the one in the story?

I’ve been in many blizzards, and some were frightening, others almost festive. As a child, I lived in town (in Wahpeton, North Dakota) and didn’t ride a school bus. The joy was that on snow days we didn’t have to go to school at all. During a blizzard, we would go out and play in our snow caves, which were warm and just next to the house. I still love the taste of snow on the wind.

Driving in whiteout blizzards is utterly harrowing, which is why I wrote this. I have many such driving experiences to draw on, and have to say I feel lucky to have survived them. In years past, I’ve twice had a child as a passenger through a blizzard like this one, which takes the fear to a whole new level. Fortunately, because I drive a lot in North Dakota and Minnesota, I now rely on a sophisticated weather app.

The story begins with some guys swapping stories in a bar. Normally, you’d expect what follows to be a tall tale—a story that’s been handed down and changed a bit with each retelling. But, in this case, you tell us that Ivek, the bus driver, wrote down what had happened to him. Why is it important that there’s a written record?

Ivek records his experience because, for him, this was even more than a life-or-death drive in a blizzard. It was an unnerving plunge into another world. His experience of terror and pity, his tender desperation, and his overwhelming fear for the lives of his students make his story a timeless one for schoolteachers. My parents were schoolteachers. My oldest daughter is a schoolteacher. The idea that schoolteachers should even have to think of arming themselves? Unbearable. That is also why I wrote this story.

Spoiler alert: at some point in the story, at least in Ivek’s mind, the bus sinks to the bottom of an icy lake. Later, it turns out to be still on the road. Is that moment a hallucination caused by wind sickness? Or does this story end in two possible ways?

Maybe Ivek writes it down because he’s grappling with his sense that both are true.

When Ivek looks at the children at the bottom of the lake, they’ve become hollow, translucent. Are they ghosts? Spirits?

The children in the lake are something other than ghosts or spirits. They are the essence of vulnerability.

“The Hollow Children” may become part of a novel you’re working on. How does it connect with the rest of the book, if so?

I have no idea. This story came to me like a waking dream. ♦

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