Tuesday, December 13, 2011

2011 (cbriii) #16 "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson

“Suddenly New York and St. Louis wanted the fair. Washington laid claim to the honor on grounds it was the center of government, New York because it was the center of everything. No one cared what St. Louis thought, although the city got a wink for pluck.”
I like history books and I’d only heard good things about The Devil in the White City (2003) by Erik Larson. I’ve been looking forward to reading it for quite awhile. The combination of a giant fair with a serial killer stalking the grounds sounded fascinating. However, although I enjoyed this book on the whole, it was not quite what I expected, and I found myself often wishing for something else. 

Erik Larson intertwines the story of the creation and building of Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893 with the story of H. H. Holmes, a psychopath and remorseless serial killer who lived and operated a hotel near the World’s Fair at the same time. Although non-fiction, the book is written like a story in narrative format, with the chapters switching back and forth between Holmes and the World’s Fair.

Larson clearly gets across the point that this fair was a huge deal—with the reputation of Chicago and the even the country at stake as the city and its inhabitants sruggled to rival Paris and the Eiffel Tower of the last world’s fair. It was a great confluence of important people and great ideas that inspired and influenced cities, architecture, and ideas for years to come. The scope of the fair, the short time to completion, and the challenge of pulling off such an ambitious project was truly amazing to read about. The book is scattered throughout with recognizable names that were all involved or visited the World’s Fair in Chicago.

On the other side, I also learned about H.H. Holmes, including some detail about his childhool and how he came to be in Chicago in the 1890’s. Perhaps what was most fascinating about Holmes’ story was his ability to get away with almost anything. People were disappearing left and right, most of them with a connection to Holmes or his hotel, but the Chicago police were not even aware of him. With more police power and effective investigations, better communication, and even building inspections, Holmes would not have been able to get away with his crimes today.

It just occurred to me while I was writing this review that the one theme that emanates throughout the book is the quest of men for power and how this quest significantly changes people’s lives. However, in the end this power and its effects are transient. The men who built the fair wanted the glory of creating something magnificent; they wanted to outdo everything that had been done in the past. Although they succeeded, the fair ends up in ruins, they are constantly battling health issues, and they all eventually die (some even on the Titanic, yet another quest for power). Holmes is motivated by his own personal quest of power over the lives of the people he kills. Although he is incredibly successful at what he does, it catches up to him at the end. It’s an interesting way to look at this book and makes me appreciate it a little more.

Perhaps my issues with the book stem from the fact that power is generally a turn-off for me. I find men who strut around and declare themselves important rather annoying. Although seeing into the inner workings of the fair’s creation was remarkable, I don’t need to know what they ate at their fancy dinners. Sometimes I felt there was so much detail about so many different people that I didn’t care about any of them. I often dreaded the chapters about the fair because I knew there would be smart, well-educated, artistic, and stubborn men arguing about what they wanted buildings to look like. I understand that Larsen was limited to the information that was available to him, and important men like to write everything about their lives in letters. This gave Larsen a wealth of information on the important men, but not much on anything else. 

I also had a hard time picturing the grounds and buildings of the fair that Larsen described. The design and image of the buildings were so important that an entire chapter of photos would have been nice to allow me to understand the scope and beauty of the fair. I finally googled some images, which helped.

Unfortunately, many of the story lines that really caught my interest were just one sentence with not nearly enough detail to satisfy me. Workers were killed throughout construction of the fair and there were labor issues and threats of strike. In addition, the one woman allowed to take part in the design of the fair (only of the Woman’s Building, of course), Sophia Hayden, was hounded and harassed in her design by Chicago’s leading women, who wanted to decorate her building with various knick-knacks. Without the power to fight back, Sophia “walked into Burnham’s office, began to tell him her story, and promptly, literally went mad: tears, heaving sobs, cries of anguish, all of it.” Hayden was driven from the park and “placed in a sanitarium for a period of enforced rest” where she fell into depression. I wish Larsen had gone into more critical detail of Hayden’s story rather than simply accepting that because a woman cried, she must be mad. Olmsted (the ground’s designer) suffered from real depression and he was not thrown into a sanitarium. But Burnham couldn’t handle tears and crying from a woman who was understandably frustrated, and she is quietly put away.

I also found the narrative style of storytelling sometimes frustrating and distracting. Throughout the book, I’d wonder what facts Larsen was using to write that part of the story, especially when he described Holmes killing one of his victims. At first I thought the woman must have survived, but then I realized that Larsen was just guessing. However, I would much prefer that Larsen just tell me what kind of evidence he found and his interpretation of that evidence. That way I can decide for myself if I agree with him or not. For that reason, I found some of his footnotes more interesting than the book because I finally found out what he had learned in his research. 

On the whole a good read, and I’d recommend it to those interested in history. However, after all the build up, I was expecting a little something more.

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