By Erik Larson
Vintage Books, 323 pp, 1999
Well-written history is sheer pleasure to
read. Isaac's Storm is well-written, compelling, exciting, and more
than mere pleasure. It's a delightful book.
Larson tells the story of the September,
1900 hurricane that demolished much of Galveston, Texas. This storm killed
about 6,000 people. No one in Galveston, including Weather Bureau official
Isaac Cline, saw it coming. The national weather service, then in its
infancy and fighting for funding and credibility, thought the storm would
miss the Gulf and swing back over the Atlantic. It didn't even think it
was a hurricane.
But anyone can write a book about an
historical event. Larson uses creative non-fiction techniques to tell a
story. He concentrates on Isaac Cline, a rising star in the Weather
Bureau, sent to Galveston to whip the weather office into shape. Though
Cline gave some bad advice on the day of the storm, he is no villain - he
was limited by human knowledge.
The people of 1900 believed what we believe
in 2003 - that we have everything figured out. We know everything there is
to know about the natural world and no longer need fear natural disasters.
We can harness the elements with the reins of high technology. That storm
had to swing back over the Atlantic because, darn it, that's what they knew
hurricanes did. Technology provided the tools to track and measure storms,
so people no longer feared them. They were armed with information!
Lest we poke fun of those misguided souls
from the previous century, keep in mind that it's not so different today.
High technology makes climbing tall mountains like Mt. Everest a simple,
easy task that anyone can do - until a storm comes along and proves us
tragically wrong, as chronicled in Into Thin
Air. Former president Clinton said in a State of the Union speech
that the U.S. and the world actually had the power and means to reverse
global warming. What hubris! The earth and Mother Nature will do what they
will, regardless of our whims and gadgets. The best we can do is cope.
The poor citizens of Galveston had little
time to do even that. All day the sea rose and flooded streets. For a
coastal town, this was no unusual occurrence. Children played in the mud
and several adults plunged into the sea to enjoy a swim. But the sea kept
coming, and the wind kept blowing, and when the roof a restaurant blew off
and the building collapsed, killing five men. The water tore apart an
orphanage, killing 90 children and ten nuns. Entire families disappeared
into the ocean.
Isaac Cline insisted that his wife and
children and fifty others wait out the storm in his house. It was a strong
house and had withstood other storms. Not this one. The house disintegrated,
killing Isaac's wife. His brother Joseph had urged them all to flee toward
the center of town - the two brothers would never speak again.
That's what makes this book so effective -
Larson concentrates on the human tragedies of ordinary people. Sure, he
mixes in histories of hurricanes, the Weather Bureau, and man's attempts
to understand and predict the weather, but it is the human story that
carries the book. Not to say the other stuff isn't interesting - it is,
and adds much to the story. But it can't carry a book.
This book represents the best of historical
non-fiction. If more historians wrote this way, history would be a much
more popular subject, especially in schools. History is filled with
stories - they need only be found and told. I'm glad Larson chose to tell
this story, and did it so well.