Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America - Erik Larson

I really didn't think I was going to stay on track with the book-a-week goal this week.  It's a crazy week at work and the evenings have been filled with French homework (another endeavor to better myself this year).  Thankfully, my wonderful little small town library offers eBooks which I can check out on my iPad. Due to that avenue alone, I was able to finish Erik Larson's historic thriller.  And it's only Thursday night.
Larson's work centers around two men in Chicago at the time of the World's Fair.  First of all, he details the design, construction, and execution of the Fair by following the life of one Daniel H. Burnham.  Burnham, an architect, was in charge of the construction of the Fair.  His story mainly involves the details of the how it all came together.  I'll be honest; this part of the book was less interesting to me, particularly the parts leading up to the Fair's opening.  However, I did learn a lot about the Chicago Fair, which I had known virtually nothing about previous to reading this book.  I really enjoyed hearing about all the exhibitions.  I can guarantee that if I had been living in Chicago at the time of the Fair, I would have been a regular attendee.

It was fascinating to me that there were so many tragedies connected to the Fair.  Ships sank, fires raged, people died by the dozens.  And yet, the Fair was considered an incredible success.  If there were anywhere close to the number of deaths connected to such an event today, it would be shut down immediately and massive investigations launched into safety, etc.  Clearly, this was a different era.

And speaking of tragedies, let's discuss the other half of the book: the story of Dr. H.H. Holmes and his "murder castle."  This story is what drew me to Larson's book in the first place (another topical recommendation from the girls at Stuff You Missed in History Class).  Holmes' story is fascinating.  He is considered to be one of the first serial killers in the US.   Holmes was a pharmacist and con artist living in Chicago at the time of the Fair.  He built a hotel/shopping center near the Fairgrounds that had all sorts of odd features such as gas chambers, a coffin-shaped kiln, and sound proof vaults.  Over the course of many years, he killed dozens of people there, mostly young women who were charmed by his charisma and personality.  I don't want to give away too many details.  You really should either read the book or listen to the 2-part podcast about him.  It's an absolutely fascinating and incredibly creepy story.

I really enjoyed this book.  I came away from it very well informed about something I previously knew nothing about.  Larson's writing style, particularly in the chapters on Holmes, make you feel as though you are reading a novel rather than a nonfiction work.  That approach helps the immense amount of detail he uses come across smoothly.  He did have a lot of cliff-hangers throughout the book.  He told everything in very strict chronological order, rather than telling individual stories in completion.  While this was a bit frustrating at times because I lost track of who some people were, it did help put things into context.

I am a few chapters into Larson's next work, In the Garden of Beasts, which is about the American ambassador to Nazi Berlin.  So far, Larson is delivering the same detailed, story-telling style.  I look forward to reading his work for many years to come.

Pages: 390
Genre: Nonfiction, Historical

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