Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Devil in the White City

Title: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Author: Erik Larson
Year: 2003
Genre: Historical non-fiction
Rating: 1

If you could define a masterpiece, this might be a good example.
The Devil in the White City, a national bestseller, is a stunning portrait of dark and light America in the 19th century, a picture of realism and idealism. Very often, we tell our children the best stories of America and focus on the beautiful and cheerful and positive and neglect the shameful and petty. These disillusions are not dispelled as we grow up, and we remain blithely unaware of the dark past that many of our most beautiful places have. In order to interpret our future, we have to know our past, and The Devil in the White City is an enlightening piece of our own history.
Larson tell the story of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition- The World's Fair- in enrapturing, grisly detail. Beginning with the designation of the location and Chicago's determination to have it, he outlines the political winds of the time period and the reasons for why it was in the Midwest instead of the obvious choice, New York City. Larson focuses on the main architect of the fair, Daniel Burnham, who is a household name in Chicago even today, and follows his struggles, frustrations, and ultimate triumph in the legendary World's Fair.
However, Larson also tracks a nightmare in a parallel story. The tale of H.H. Holmes, a psychopathic murderer lost to history, is interspersed with the larger tale of the Exposition. In grisly, meticulously researched detail, Larson follows the quiet threads of the man who murdered at least nine people and possibly more than fifty over the course of five years. Larson paints a dark human picture, leading readers down a dark path of either madness or sick, disturbed thought.
You thought you knew history. But Larson takes his readers through their own history, rediscovering details that they thought they had forgotten and clearing away foggy parts of that time period as he goes. I don't want to spoil too much of the story, but did you know that Aunt Jemima's pancakes had their start at the Fair?
Perhaps the most astonishing part of this book is the historical accuracy. Most of us slog through history textbooks in high school and college and then never read another one until our kids ask us for help with homework, but The Devil in the White City reads like an enrapturing novel. With the skill of a historian and journalist, Larson retrieves hundreds upon hundreds of quotes from the annals of history, filling them in like dialogue. His sardonic sense of humor and irony also keep the novel funny, despite the dark overtones.
So even if you didn't think you knew history, this book is worth the week it takes to read. It's not long, and you'll rip through it. It's a little older now, so I got my copy at a consignment store for $2.00, but you can get your copy at Barnes and Noble for $16.95 or on eBooks for $9.99. And trust me, it's worth buying, because you'll read it two or three times. Then tell your friends to read it. Then recommend it to your coworkers. And so on.
Anyway, it also makes a great Christmas present. Merry Christmas, everybody!

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