September 26, 2017

isaacs storm

Isaac’s Storm

Erik Larson

Pub. 1999

323 pgs.

Genre: Literary Nonfiction, Biography

Summary / Review / TLDR / Recommended For / Issues / Themes / Grade


Summary

In the late summer of 1900, the National Weather Service was in its infancy. Men at posts scattered throughout the country took measurements a few times a day, which they then sent via telegraph to headquarters in Washington, DC. The experts of the day then attempted to interpret the findings to make forecasts. So what if their predictions didn’t line up with other people’s? American hubris was at its peak, and none could convince them otherwise. But when a little storm starts off the coast of Africa, little do the forecasters know that it will soon become a hurricane that would wipe out a bustling city off the coast of Texas and become one of the deadliest disasters in American history.

In this thoroughly researched book, Erik Larson paints a picture of a city in its prime, men driven by thirst for knowledge and political power, and the storm that would change everything.

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Review

This book is intense.

Granted, it doesn’t necessarily start out that way; Larson goes into a lot of the context surrounding the disastrous decisions that affected the way everything was handled. In fact, the first third or so of the book is all scientific explanations on how hurricanes form, background information on Isaac Cline, the chief meteorologist in Galveston, and an explanation of how meteorological forecasts were handled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The way I just explained it might sound horrifically boring, but Isaac’s Storm is far from a textbook. Instead, the way Larson writes is engaging and easily understood by the layman.

As he’s giving a brief pre-storm biography of Cline, Larson is also introducing us to a truncated cast of citizens in Galveston. There’s a married couple and their multiple children living close to the stormward shore; business people from out of town discussing shipping and trade; kids in an orphanage; and various other small groups and individuals we get to know as the storm makes its way across the Atlantic and into the Gulf of Mexico.

As the book goes on, the story returns time and again to these people. Larson builds tension by showing the storm making landfall in Cuba and wreaking havoc on ships in the Gulf of Mexico. As it bears down on Galveston, the storm surge causes waters to rise over railroad tracks and wood-trestle sidewalks; so, too, does the reader’s heartbeat. When the storm finally makes landfall, there’s a harrowing sixty pages or so where we don’t know who, if anyone, will survive.

When I read this book, a huge thunderstorm was on its way to my town. I could hear the wind starting to whistle around the windowpanes as raindrops splattered against the glass. If you want an ambience to heighten the terror factor of Larson’s writing, might I recommend waiting for the next summer storm?

The only thing I didn’t like was the lack of information regarding the actual results of the storm. The end of the book is all about what happened in Galveston, but there is so little actually known that it felt hurried. The characters seem to vanish and the book takes on a more clinical tone as people start to clean up and move on with their lives. This isn’t necessarily Larson’s fault; he’s doing what he can with what he has to work with, after all. But still. In the almost twenty years since Isaac’s Storm was first published, maybe we’ve learned something new. It’d be cool to have an updated, revised edition released for the anniversary.

Despite that, I definitely recommend this book. The information contained within is so well-researched that a trip to Wikipedia afterwards is unnecessary, unlike some nonfiction where you come away with no understanding of what you just read. By adding in stories of people other than just Cline, Larson builds empathy for the common citizens of the doomed town. By giving historical and political context to the storm, it allows readers to see just how far science has come in terms of understanding weather patterns and predicting storms.

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TLDR

An excellent nonfiction work that would find a happy home on science or history class shelves.

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Recommended for…

  • Science nerds
  • History buffs
  • Illustrating the power of narrative writing in nonfiction

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Issues

  • Death: deaths of people in the storm are described
  • Deceit: deceit from various people, including members of government agencies
  • Natural Disaster: it’s about a hurricane, after all
  • Swearing: some mild, contextual swearing in a few quotes
  • Violence: related to the hurricane

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Themes

  • Change vs. Tradition
  • Determination
  • Education
  • Family
  • Friendship
  • Honesty
  • Overcoming Adversity
  • Responsibility
  • Right vs. Wrong
  • Survival

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Grade

Main Character 2
Subcast 2
Setting Development 2
Exploration of Conflict 2
Satisfying Resolution 1
Consideration of Themes 2
Didactic Tone 2
Suspension of Disbelief 2
Imagery and Description 2
Compelling Storytelling 2
Author’s Style 2
Rhythm and Pace of Book 1
Mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 2
Predictability 2
Reader Enjoyment 2
Total 28/30
93%

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