I have gone back and forth on Erik Larson. I mean, I loved Devil in the White City, found In the Garden of Beasts captivating but not quite as much of a page-turner, and haven’t yet gotten through the Crippen/Marconi book.
But Isaac’s Storm….Isaac’s Storm was a book that I read a third of before I could even think about putting it down. Isaac’s Storm was a book that I read instead of gaming. Isaac’s Storm was a book that I devoured.
One of the things that Erik Larson does very, very well is parallel stories. Devil in the White City paralleled the building of the White City (and the careers/lives of those involved) with the life of H.H. Holmes. Isaac’s Storm parallels the life and career of Isaac Cline – tangled up with the history of the Weather Service – with the hurricane of 1900. All the different variables are there – the belief that a hurricane would never come through the Gulf, the insistence that predicting a hurricane would cause panic, the actual meteorological factors. What’s absolutely fantastic is the way that he uses the storm as a character without ever anthropomorphising it. Every few chapters track the storm on its progress through the Atlantic, past ships and islands – but it’s never treated as a being, it’s never humanised.
It was a devastating storm, the deadliest storm in American history. No one in Galveston knew that it was coming; no one knew to prepare. Petty jealousies and pride, plus lack of knowledge, kept anyone from reading the signs correctly. That was, in retrospect, one of the most frustrating things – the Cubans, for example, knew that it was a strong hurricane, and predicted that it would head to Texas, but the US Weather Service refused to acknowledge their warnings, because why would people who’ve lived in the path of tropical storms for their entire existence know anything about tropical storms?
The only thing that was teased and not carried through was the relationship between Joseph and Isaac Cline. They were, at the time of the hurricane, fairly close and living together. Within a few years, though, they didn’t even acknowledge each other’s existence, or that they’d ever been brothers. What happened between them? Larson never tells us. He hints at it, he references the estrangement, but he never goes into details. He may not have them – but if he doesn’t, it’s not quite fair that he teases it so much throughout.
But that’s the only fault I have to find with it. It got me interested in meteorology again, at least for the time I was reading. It got me interested in Texas history, in weather history, in disaster history. I was absolutely captivated throughout.