Author: Erik Larson
Type: Non-fiction, single subject
Full title: Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
I read it: June 2015
“If I was to write forever, I could not give you an idea of it—a total darkness all above; the sea on fire, running as it were in Alps, or Peaks of Teneriffe; (mountains are too common an idea;) the wind roaring louder than thunder (absolutely no flight of imagination,) the whole made more terrible, if possible, by a very uncommon kind of blue lightning.”
This was Lt. Benjamin Archer’s attempt to describe experiencing a hurricane near the Caribbean in 1780. Erik Larson spends an entire book trying to put the reader in this type of situation, and he does so to great success.
His principal subject is Isaac Cline, head weatherman in Galveston, Texas at the dawn of the 1900s. By Larson’s account, Cline was a capable, hardworking, and scientific man, though he was at the mercy of the twisty bureaucracy of the U.S. Weather Bureau. This organization’s shortsightedness, coupled with the general pride and optimism of this point in history, contributed to Cline underestimating a devastating hurricane that ruined Galveston on September 8, 1900.
True to its subtitle, this book does have a lot to say about the time period. Larson constantly reminds us of the overconfidence and wondrous attitude that people (especially those privileged enough to be entrepreneurs or hold positions of authority) had about the United States. The Weather Bureau in particular employed several bad apples, such as the chief at the time, Willis Moore, whose obsession with both his own career and American nationalism caused him to wage a campaign against cooperating with Cuba, a country with a long history of hurricane forecasting and tracking.
The third part of the subtitle, the deadliest hurricane in history (American history at least), is framed against a broader history of oceanic storms throughout recorded time. This sets the stage for the specific story of the Galveston storm that took 6,000 lives at the lower estimate. The first half of the book dips in and out of various timelines and subjects, while small chapters about the Galveston hurricane illustrate how and when the elements are brewing. The second half comes into clearer focus when it narrates various people living in the city the day the storm struck. At first, the residents are anxious yet amused and excited, having witnessed coastal storms before. Kids played in the streets as rain fell and people gathered on the beach to watch the sky change. Eventually, news traveled inland that the storm was tearing up structures along the beach, though many people who did not see it with their own eyes refused to believe the possibilities.
As one mother recalled:
“For a while even ladies were wading in the water, thinking it was fun. The children had a grand time, picking up driftwood and other things that floated down the street.”
A little while later she was updated on the status and something shifted.
“Then it wasn’t fun anymore.”
The shivers this line brings is a testament to Larson’s structure and pacing. The book is part history, part adventure, part biography, part horror story, and always interesting. After all, this was a storm in which “one man reported dodging a giant piano embedded in the crest of a wave.” It’s an unimaginable situation, and you can’t tear your eyes and thoughts away from the ghosts who haunt the pages. Isaac himself suffered personal tragedy in the event, and not knowing exactly what the tragedy is until Larson reveals it adds yet another layer of anticipation to the tale. (Larson crafts his book’s title around one convention whereby storms get named after popular victims.) This piece of writing is an absolute feat.
In his notes at the end of the book, the author claims: “It is one thing to write Great Man history, quite another to explore the lives of history’s little men.” I thought this was a great way to put it. The idea of reading a presidential biography bores me to tears, but I’ve easily fallen sway to accounts of the strange tales of Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z or the crew of the Essex from In the Heart of the Sea. I seem to rank the skills of these non-fiction authors quite high as compared to their peers in fiction, and Larson is easily among the best storytellers I’ve read in recent years.
Music corner: Songs I enjoy related to this content include Built to Spill’s “The Weather,” Brian Fallon’s “No Weather,” and Brandi Carlile’s recent “The Eye.” But of course the closest thing to a soundtrack would be Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.” Its ups and downs, squirming guitar paths, and overall awesomeness can take you places where storms build and explode.