WEEK 3: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

DWCityIn the last section of the book, author Erik Larson goes into detail about how he conducted his research for the novel which included more than a few visits to a few different libraries, and even a few cemeteries. A New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist in 2003, the nonfiction novel is the perfect blend of historical fact and narrative style. It is one of those books that, if it were a person, would be well-rounded with both intellect and charm. The subtitle just about sums it up: “Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.”

The main plot lines follow architect Daniel Burnham in his scurry to put together the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in honor of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas; and Dr. H. H. Holmes, a physician with not so upright morals (he “could not help the fact that [he] was a murderer”). To some extent, Larson draws conclusions in his construction of the character Holmes by deeming him a psychopath by 21st century standards. I can imagine it is probably very difficult to draw conclusions on people based on the historical documents they left lying around more than a century ago. But I’m all for giving authors license to make characters more interesting as long as they are transparent about it. It seems I am not the only one who enjoyed the book enough to overlook Larson’s use of artistic freedom – Leonardo DiCaprio bought the rights to make the book into a movie back in 2010.

What I truly loved about this book was how much I learned:

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How the Ferris Wheel was invented for the 1893 fair by George Ferris, one of a prominent group of American engineers who were assigned with the task of “out-Eiffel”ing the Eiffel tower built in 1889.

That the pledge of allegiance was written and distributed to schools with instructions: all American children were to say the pledge aloud on the dedication day of the fair.

That Buffalo Bill provided Susan B. Anthony with free tickets to his Wild West Show after she made a public comment that the fair should be open on Sundays, even if it meant people would skip church. Anthony attended his show with front and center seats and Bill Cody paid tribute by riding up to her on horseback and tipping his hat, to which she responded by standing and taking a bow.

That Walt Disney’s father, Elias Disney, was a construction worker for the World’s Fair, which might have served as inspiration for Disneyland.

The fair was the first public introduction of Shredded Wheat. And the telephone. It was the first large-scale test of alternating electric current – an “engineering milestone” as well as a great visual transformation of nighttime in the city. And it was used by workers unions as an opportunity to negotiate for decent work hours and wages.

I learned how many famous people attended the World’s Fair (excluding Mark Twain, who arrived in Chicago with every intention of attending but, alas, did not), what the construction was like, and how it came to be that Chicago acquired the responsibility of being the host city. There are so many delicious morsels of historical information in this book that people who aren’t your typical ‘history buffs’ will even find themselves intrigued.

The details of the construction of the “White City” is paralleled by gory and gruesome details of the murders of H.H. Holmes and the general criminal activity that plagued the city of Chicago at the time. These too, were enjoyable to read, yet provided a completely different tone and focus. Through Holmes’ character, Larson draws out deceit, greed and other darker traits of mankind.

Some reader reviews claim that the connection made between Holmes and Burnham’s construction of his White City is a stretch, but I think Larson was attempting to create a contrast that would illuminate the natural tendencies of human nature at both its best and its worst. I believe Larson succeeded in reaching this objective, and also provided his readers with one hell of a good time.

Overall score: 8 – I loved it, but it could be an acquired taste for those who find the Gilded Age boring.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 being “don’t waste your time reading this” and 10 being “you must read this at some point in your life.”)

 Helpful Articles:

Interview with Erik Larson at Booknotes.org.

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