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.