Tuesday, March 13, 2012

30B430 Book 13: The Devil in the White City


Is it eerie that this is book 13, since it is about a serial killer? Weird.

Anyway, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson has been on my To Read list for quite awhile. It turned out to be a great audio book to get me through my long daily commute. 

The book is non-fiction, but reads much like a detailed suspense thriller. It tells two concurrent stories - the building and implementation of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (aka the World's Columbian Exposition - learned that from the book) and the many designers who made it happen, as well as the story of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who capitalized on the fair crowds to lure in many of his victims.

I really like Larson's style of writing. He includes rich detail about different historical events, told as a story that you don't want to put down. It builds, like a slow crescendo, leaving you wanting to find out how it all ends - Will the fair succeed? When will Holmes get caught? Meanwhile, you are learning all kinds of crazy stuff!

One of the most interesting parts of the book was hearing all of the products and inventions that debuted or became popular at the fair that we still have today. These included the original Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit Gum, Shredded Wheat Pabst Blue Ribbon. Yes Hipsters, your beer of choice has a cool history.

It was also interesting to hear the fair's connection to Waukesha, my hometown (yeah, famous!). The designers of the fair wanted to provide guests with refreshing Waukesha spring water, as the Chicago sewage system was known to be quite poor at the time. According to Larson, although the Village of Waukesha had denied the request to provide water for the fair, they designers sent a train of workers to Waukesha to lay the pipes anyway. The train was met by a ringing fire bell and a crowd of angry villagers, ready to protect their water. The fair did end up getting Waukesha county water from a nearby property, although not from the village itself. The City of Waukesha actually describes the "Great Water Fight" on their web site.

If you are interested, I found this great Flickr album from the Brooklyn Museum, with pictures from the fair. The one downside to audio books is that you do not get any of the pictures that might be in the book. I have had to do my own searching. 

While I was living in St. Louis, I had the opportunity to visit the Missouri History Museum, which is in Forest Park - site of the 1904 World's Fair (the Louisiana Purchase Exposition). The one building in the park that is still standing is the Palace of Fine Arts, now the Saint Louis Art Museum, which unfortunately I never visited while living there. The collection at the museum was pretty great, and provided me with some interesting points of comparison as I read the book about the Chicago fair, just 11 years earlier.

I have decided that perhaps I should become a history nerd again. It was always one of those subjects that I liked most. I have added In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, also by Larson, to my To Read List.

Any other suggestions for good historical non-fiction? I still have 17 more books to read this year.

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