Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

  • The Devil in the White City

  • Author: Erik Larson

  • Pub. Date: February 2004

  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

  • Format: Paperback , 464pp  

  • Series: Vintage Series

  • ISBN-13: 9780375725609

  • ISBN: 0375725601

  • Synopsis:

    Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that 'The Devil in the White City' is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.

    Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison.

    The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.

    Combining the stories of an architect and a killer in one book, mostly in alternating chapters, seems like an odd choice but it works. The magical appeal and horrifying dark side of 19th-century Chicago are both revealed through Larson's skillful writing.

    My Review:

    As the above synopsis describes for many readers, I too checked once or twice during my reading of The Devil in the White City, whether this book was fiction or non-fiction. Larson is able to weave this non-fiction tale into a story. It is not a dry history textbook, but the events surrounding the planning, erection, and aftermath of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago come to life for the reader.

    With two parallel plots, Larson gives the reader a glimpse into the incredible rush of building the 1893 World's Fair to make a idyllic dreamland and the seamier underside of Chicago. Daniel Burnham is in charge of planning and implementing the plans to building the World's Fair in two years. His tale shows extraordinary strength and will power. I think many people would have cracked early on from the pressure that Burnham withstood. His story is one of empowerment and detmination through many pitfalls and disappointments.

    One the other side of the spectrum is Dr. H.H. Holmes who is a sociopath. He travels from city to city looking for his victims. His tactics show how horrible a human can become, he is inhuman. During the World's Fair, he sets up shop in Chicago because of it's easy access to single women alone in a large city. His hotel is really a torture palace for his sick mind.

    I liked Larson's combination of the two men and I disliked it. It definitely showed two very different stories set in the same place and time, but that's all that connected the two men- the location and time period. Even their endings were very different, it's not like they met at some point or anything. However, both men had very interesting lives and I was fascinated the whole way through. Holmes' was a sick man and his plot always left me disgusted, but then Burnham's story showed what perseverance can accomplish.

    Larson did a great job making their stories come to life and highly recommend The Devil in the White City if you like narrative non-fiction.

    My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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