The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (Book Review)

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What do the planning and construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a killer’s rampage have in common? Not much, you might think, and you’d be wrong. It’s the realization of ambition. Ginormous ambition.

I chanced across a pristine copy of this book during a lunchtime used-bookstore escape from a depressing and frustrating job that turned out to a giant mistake. The book was not a mistake. In one hand we have the plans and battles of architect Daniel Burnham as he overcomes sequential (and often simultaneous) obstacles including unions, politics, and weather to create the Columbian Exposition – the White City – that helped make Chicago what it is today. In the other hand, being carefully intertwined, is the scheming of the charismatic H.H. Holmes as he scams his way to build his nearby hotel of horrors that included an airtight vault-cum-gas-chamber in his private office and a coffin-esque kiln and quicklime pit in his basement. Each man had the talent and drive to accomplish a dream, but while one used his gifts to unite and create, the other used his to lure and destroy. The juxtaposition is eerie.

So many firsts: the zipper, Shredded Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, moving walkways, an all-electric kitchen including dishwasher (invented by a woman, incidentally), spray painting – and America’s first documented serial killer.

I enjoy nonfiction because I love finding things out, but I don’t always love actually reading it because of how dry it can be. Larson is a master of narrative nonfiction, mining historical documents and archives and bringing the past to life with interesting detail and often dry humor.

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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