Sunday, October 02, 2005

Sunday Night Book Review: The Devil in the White City

I was inspired by the top ten list at Booman Tribune tonight to begin talking about some of the books that have greatly inspired, haunted, or informed me.

Books are amazing things. You open them, and suddenly you are transported through time and space, to places in the past or possible future, to fantasy places that never were or to dark events that need to be exposed. I've made a little "top 10" list of favorite non-fiction and fiction books to share, but rather than give it all at once, I'm going to dribble it out on Sunday nights. Or so I say at this time. Check back next week to see if I follow through!

To me, it's impossible to list the "ten best books" because there are so many I would rank equally with any that I mention. But as I glanced through my own library, I thought 1) I'd limit myself to books I own currently, and 2) I wouldn't waste time trying to pick the 'correct' order. What matters is that I share the books that have moved or amazed me in some way.

I want to start with one of my most recent reads, a wonderfully compelling story of glory and intrigue at the Chicago World's Fair at the end of the 19th century.

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

I've long had a fascination with the World's Fair held in Chicago in 1893. Called the Columbian Exposition, because it honored the memory of that "discoverer" of America, Christopher Columbus, the fair turned the soot-blackened city of Chicago, a looked-down-upon middle American town into a glorious "City of Light."

The Devil in the title refers to the first serial murderer in America, commonly known as H. H. Holmes (an alias),who took up residence near the fair and used its myriad attactions to lure hapless young women into his hotel of death.

The narrative crisscrosses the efforts of a group of Chicago businessmen, led by architect Daniel H. Burnham, to build a fair that would top the incredible exposition Paris held when it debuted the Eiffel Tower just a few years earlier, and the progress of "Dr. H. H. Holmes," the alias of a man named Mudgett, as he wooed and then killed young women for his own purposes. The efforts to build the fair are as full of lightness and virtue as the story of Holmes is grisly and black. The contrast makes for a fascinating narrative, one that should be made into a film. This was the fair that gave us the first Ferris Wheel, constructed by George Ferris. The fair was attended by luminaries such as President Grover Cleveland, Mark Twain, Scott Joplin, Clarence Darrow, a Princeton professor named Woodrow Wilson, and Susan B. Anthony. Outside the fairgrounds, since he was not permitted inside, Buffalo Bill Cody set up his Wild West Show.

The author's writing is so compelling, the story so novelistic, that there is a note in the beginning ensuring the reader that this is a nonfiction book.

In this true account, as is often the case in projects of such magnitude, there are constant problems and disasters in the construction of the fair that require tenacious ingenuity to overcome. And when Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse beat out Thomas Edison and J. P. Morgan for the right to power the fair, Edison threatened the entire fair by refusing to allow Tesla and Westinghouse to use his patented light bulbs. So Westinghouse plowed his money into producing a new light bulb, to be used for the fair. There are many such episodes that will amaze and amuse, and author Larson helps you see it all going up around you.

And the story of the extremely charming but fatally dangerous H. H. Holmes as he woos women, tires of them, and then kills them and chemically dissolves their bodies so he can sell the skeletons to colleges to use in classrooms is grotesquely fascinating. How could he get away with it? As each victim nears I was practically shouting as I read, "Run away! Run away!" To no avail, of course. But when have you not known me to tilt at windmills?

Reading the story of the Exposition made me long for time travel so I could visit the fair myself, sit in the Court of Honor, and cry tears at the beauty of it, as so many of the fair's visitors did. I wanted to gasp, as other visitors did, at the sight of the first entirely electrically lit "city" in America, this marvelous white city standing in stark contrast to the sooty coal-powered structures at the distant edge of the White City. I glide in the electric gondolas that sailed from one end of the fairground to the other across a manmade lake bordering the very real Lake Michigan. I wanted to see Tesla's "Egg of Columbus" exhibit and watch him electrify himself for Fair guests to demonstrate that AC was not the fatal current Edison was busily painting it to be.

I worried as I read it whether the fair's backers would make back their huge investment, and worried that perhaps H. H. Holmes would get away with his crimes.

I dare you to pick this up, read two pages, and stop there. I dare you. You can't. It's just too fascinating. I read it all the way through in a few days, bought a second copy to pass around, and will undoubtedly read it again when I have forgotten enough of it to enjoy the myriad surprises again on my next pass.

So there you have it. The #1 book on my personal non-fiction list, at the moment. Subject to change at any time, of course.


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