Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #1: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City is a finely-wrought account of one of the engineering and design marvels of American history, the Chicago world’s fair of 1893. Against the greatest of odds, a collection of impassioned men and women from across the country came together under the leadership of  architect Daniel Burnham to attempt the impossible—building a brand-new (if  temporary) “White City” based on the finest ideals of art, science, design and engineering.  Author Erik Larson suggests that the Chicago effort was initially undertaken for the dual purpose of “one-upping” France, which had stunned the world with the Eiffel Tower as the centerpiece of its Universal Exposition in 1889, and of literally building  up the city’s reputation on a par with New York City and other cultural capitals of the world. But as hundreds of professional architects, engineers, draftsmen, landscapers  and tens of thousands of workers  battled everything from impossible deadlines, bank crashes and political backstabbing to storms, floods and disease, the Fair became a symbol of the entire nation’s can-do heritage and fired the imagination of Americans everywhere.

Larson recreates the period with meticulous detail, down to the smell and sounds of the Chicago stockyards, the screaming winds coming in off Lake Michigan, the frozen muck of the fairgrounds in dead of winter, even the dinner party menus of the rich and famous as they discuss how and whether to fund the Fair’s ever-expanding financial needs. When the Fair’s centerpiece attraction, bridgebuilder George Ferris’ 265-foot tall Ferris Wheel attempts its first revolution, the reader literally ducks as Larson describes the hail of loose nuts and bolts that poured down.  For a piece of non-fiction, Larson’s book is brilliant as an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter that literally left me gasping in amazement at points.

All that said, I must express my profound disappointment that Larson felt it necessary to include in his book what he apparently considered the “parallel” story of serial killer H.H. Holmes, one of the country’s first known mass murderers who operated on the fringes of the Chicago fair. While images of “good vs. evil” and “white vs dark” are clearly meant to flit through the reader’s mind as chapters on the Fair alternate with those of the serial killer’s rampage, I found Larson’s implied comparison of Holmes’ gruesome obsession with murdering as many young women as possible with the indomitable drive of Fair architect Burnham unworthy of the author, and a detraction from an otherwise inspired and inspiring presentation of a piece of American history.

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6 thoughts on “Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #1: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

  1. Great review, valyruh, glad you’re on board!

  2. fdbluth on said:

    Thank you for saying the H. H. Holmes thing was weird. I also thought the story of The World’s Fair was a great story on its own, and the parallel with Holmes that the author was trying to attach came off as far-fetched to me, although I wouldn’t have minded a separate, more intensive look into Holmes’ life (but then again, I’m sure there are many books out there that focus on exactly that).

    Great review!

    P.S. Didn’t they say they were making a movie on this book and they were gonna cast DiCaprio as Holmes? That sounds like they want to focus on Holmes rather than the Fair, which is total bs. I hope I heard wrong.

  3. valyruh on said:

    Thank you for your kind words on my first review (the first book review I’ve written since junior high, I think!!). There are so many unabashedly adoring reviews of this book that never address the strange mix of stories, so I’m glad to find that my impressions were not isolated ones. And yes, they are making a movie this year with DeCaprio, and while I’m sure he’ll make a great HH Holmes, why glorify psychopaths when the real story –the White City—is so inspiring on its own? And in this crazy world we live in, we can use all the inspiration we can get, I would say. Anyway, thanks again.

  4. I just finished this book and loved it!! Haven’t written my review yet, but I actually liked the Holmes side-story. Then again, my tastes tend toward the macabre.

    Are they really making a movie out of it?

    • valyruh on said:

      Haha Yup, they sure are! Psychopaths always draw the audiences, it seems. And Holmes is certainly up there with the “best.” Glad you loved the book.

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