Book Report #6: Devil in the White City

#6: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

After my surprising love affair with 1906, a historical fiction novel set during San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, I jumped right back on the wagon reading The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Set in the late 1800’s, Larson’s tale intertwines dual narratives. The first focuses on the planning and building of the 1893 World’s Fair while the second craftily reveals the exploits of a criminal benefiting from the masses of naive tourists coming to the Fair.

When my girlfriend lent me this book my only context was her assurance that, “if you liked 1906 you’ll like this.” So, with 1906 fresh on my mind, I was impressed when reading the first part of The Devil in the White City by Larson’s thorough attention to historical detail and facts intertwined with all the necessary elements of a compelling narrative. In fact, in contrast to the minor but frequent geographic slip ups and other factual leeway with which Dalessandro paints our view of 1906, Larson’s Devil is uncanny in its description of historical events down to the point of feeling like a primary record.

At one point while reading I flipped back to the front of the book to read the author’s note I had skipped prior which includes a sentence that, “anything between quotation marks come from a letter, memoir, or other written document.” This took a few minutes to sink in and realize what a magnificent accomplishment Larson created in The Devil in the White City. Not only does this book offer a compelling narrative, but it is also a gem of finely researched historical accounts. Many parts of Devil are, in fact, quoting right from the primary record.

Each subject, the 1893 World’s Fair and the tales of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a doctor, is highly compelling in its own right. The Fair itself was a powerful representation of America’s spirit to create a dream world out of nothing but weeds and a marshy grassland. Such is the general storyline of the Fair as the nation’s leading architects and grounds designers allied a team of thousands to erect a once-in-a-lifetime miniature city housing the era’s avant garde in technology, art and culture.

The importance of 1893 World’s Fair was reinforced directly and indirectly, the latter being the most pressing and memorable. Peppered throughout the novel are small hints about the lasting impacts of the fair from the prominent use of alternating current electric generators and lights, to the mention of a young man named Walt watching his father Elias work on the construction of this fantasy land of the Fair.

The H.H. Holmes storyline is gruesome but captivating, a slow motion trainwreck of criminal intrigue as we learn how much a serial killer can accomplish when everyone is focused on other things. Shocking more than sad, while reading these portions I found solace in recognizing the historical work done by the author to preserve records of these events that were on the verge of destruction.

The real sadness hit me from the closing narrative of the Fair’s ending and partial deconstruction. Midway through the book we are shown the full potential of humanity’s capabilities to create a wondrous city of our dreams, but it ends up as a fleeting ghost that quickly decays into “real life”. Why can’t real life be like the “white city”? What stands in the way of creating the ideal society we really want? If we built a prototype in less than 2 years back in the 1890’s, imagine what we could build today?

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