Saturday, January 27, 2007

Five best books about natural disasters

Gary Krist, author of the forthcoming The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche, shared his list of the five "most powerful portraits of natural disasters" with Opinion Journal.

Number one on Krist's list:

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 1968)

Arguably the work that launched the modern disaster genre, this account of the Great Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889, still sets the standard for colorful, well-researched historical nonfiction. It was historian David McCullough's first book, but his trademark atmospheric style of narration is already in full bloom, evident in his rich portrayal of the proletarian steel town that had the misfortune of being located a few miles downstream from "the most exclusive resort in America." The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, where the likes of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick spent their vacations, knew how to pamper millionaires, but it wasn't too careful about maintaining the earthen dam that supported its boating lake. The dam's collapse in a heavy storm sent a huge wall of water roaring down the valley toward Johnstown, ultimately killing more than 2,000 mostly working-class residents. McCullough turns this calamity into a subtle morality tale, showing how it foreshadowed the class conflicts that were later to bring the Gilded Age to a tumultuous close.

Read about the other four books.

Of Krist's The White Cascade, Mark S. Luce wrote:
"Gary Krist's smart page-turner, "The White Cascade," documents [the Wellington] disaster with verve, humanity and purpose. Krist's story goes beyond the recounting of a tragic event and becomes a study of individual heroism and failure, corporate avarice and the era's misguided faith that humans and their technology could tame Mother Nature...To research the book, Krist mined personal journals of the passengers, telegrams, letters, the inquest testimony, later court proceedings, newspapers and a veritable library of books on railroading. The results couldn't be more pleasing, as Krist crafts a tale of drama and compassion while slipping in a social history of railroads and their effect on the economic boom in the Northwest in the early years of the 20th century."
--Marshal Zeringue