Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Devil in the White City

I just finished the book The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. A historical biography that reads like a novel, I learned much from this book.

Taking place in Chicago during the preparations for the 1893 World's Fair, the main driving plot of the book surrounds the lives of two men at the time; Daniel Burnham, the leading architect that designed and brought about the success of the fair upholding the pride of Chicago (then just an ambitious hog-butchering town), and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer whose criminal compulsions the bustle of the fair masked.

Featuring such famous characters as Frederick Olmsted (the landscape architect known for New York's Central Park), Buffalo Bill, Frank Lloyd Wright, and George W. Ferris (the man that out-Eiffeled Eiffel and his famous tower), the story proceeds from the initial days when Chicago first put out its bid for the honor of hosting the fair, through the struggles of the leading architects to work together, maintain the integrity of the fair, and prove to the world that Chicago was as deserving as it had boasted, to the opening ceremonies, to the final days of each of the fair's designers.

Throughout this enchanting and intricate telling of the process which brought about such an amazing event, the author alternated the story of the serial killer who was able to get away with the murder and exploitation of so many people that crossed his path at a time when the world had not yet come to terms with the rampage of Jack the Ripper, and the Chicago police department couldn't handle the constant stream of missing persons in the area.

At the beginning, it was the gruesome story of H.H. Holmes that made the book so compelling, but at the end, it was the architect's tale that I appreciated. Reading the book with a map of Chicago tucked in my purse, I was able to appreciate and visualize Jackson Park, the wooded island, 63rd street, and even buildings like the Rookery and the Reliance Building which made me miss and appreciate the history of Chicago even more.

Now only one more book in my stack of Christmas books to read!


Bone-a-fide said...

Daniel Burnham is my great-great uncle!!!

I forgot that someone suggested I read this book because of that. Thanks for reminding me!

Aubrey said...

Really? How cool! You should DEFINITELY read this book. I'd lend it to you, but it was a Christmas present TO my husband, so it is bad enough that I read it first!

Anonymous said...

I sell this book at my job a whole la la! I found Aubrey's blog! I wish I had a computer so I could read it every day! Love Michelle

Megora said...

I just finished this a couple weeks ago. My sister gave it to me. A must read for Chicagoans.

I have to say MY favorite part was reading the footnotes in the end. It made me question some of the events that Larson puts forth as non-fiction, though. I'm kind of a non-fiction nerd, in that I love to talk about objectivity in writing about history (and if that's even possible). I think that largely what Larson wrote about Holmes was a theory of events, rather than a definitive conclusion on how events transpired. It becomes a tricky balance when you merge facutal occurences from public record with hypothesis. Though, very honestly, I find this kind of story telling much more engaging..and sometimes more honest (if that makes sense). Meaning, perhaps this book is just as valid as a US History text in public schools; and because it is sold in this context, as a novel (non-fiction or otherwise), we understand the liberties it takes. I would love to see the day when public school texts contain prologues that acknowledge the questionable objectivity in ANY historical account. You know?

Wow. Long post! woah.