Thursday, August 24, 2006

25. The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is the GB Book Club’s selection for September and I’m pretty sure I would have never read the book if this weren’t the case. First of all, I was convinced it was fiction. I knew that certain parts of the story were true – that it was set during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and that it featured America’s first serial killer H.H. Holmes – but I thought it was just based on these facts and that the story itself was fiction, kind of like how The DaVinci Code is based on actual theories but is really, despite some ridiculously zealous readers’ beliefs, a work of fiction. I’ve read some “historical fiction” in my day and I wasn’t too enthralled with the genre. Second of all, this book was immensely popular when it came out, achieving a DaVinci Code-like status so that everywhere I went I saw people with the book in their hands. I hate to say this, because I’m so against the thought that popularity equals lack of quality, but you know, usually when a book is grabbing everyone’s attention, even non-readers, it tends not to be that good. However, after actually reading the book, my previous conceptions couldn’t have been more wrong.

As most of you probably know, the book isn’t just based on fact. It is fact. Everything Larson wrote actually happened, which he states outright in his introduction: “However strange or macabre some of the following incidents may seem, this is not a work of fiction. Anything between quotation marks comes from a letter, memoir, or other written document.” That immediately piqued my interest and I only wish I had picked up the book and read the short introduction much sooner. I already knew about Daniel Burnham and John Root, the fair’s architects, and I knew about Louis Sullivan and the buildings they designed, but I didn’t have much knowledge of the fair’s construction itself, so much of this was educational to me.

The book is two stories that weave into one: that of the World’s Fair and that of H.H. Holmes. Each chapter alternates between the two so you could almost read just every other chapter and have two distinct stories. When the US decided to hold a World’s Fair in honor of Columbus’s discovery of America, Chicago won the bid and immediately began devising ways that this World’s Fair would beat out the one held in Paris. The buildings had to be grand and the exhibits spectacular and there had to be something that stood out far beyond the achievement of Gustave Alexandre Eiffel. Troubles abounded everywhere as time was of the essence, setbacks came everywhere, and important figures met their unexpected deaths. The fair did get built and remains an important part of Chicago and US history, but Larson’s writing style imparts a good deal of suspense and even though you know how the story turns out, you wonder how it’s all going to happen. Holmes’s story is, of course, much darker in tone and Larson describes in detail how the man born Herman Webster Mudgett became the man who killed dozens. The chaos of the Word’s Fair allowed him to build the hotel where he carried out his killings, seducing women and then scientifically dismantling their bodies. It’s incredibly disturbing and, considering pop culture’s penchant for gore, easy to dismiss as fiction, but the wonderment of it all is that everything in the book actually happened. Beat that, Dan Brown.

The great thing about the book is that it’s totally and completely enthralling. I could not for the life of me put it down and I had to force myself to stop reading so I could do things like sleep and go to work. I don’t know how Larson was able to do it, but he took all these facts and put them together so that they read much more like a novel than a history book. He takes very little creative license, although he does stray in some places when describing the reactions of Holmes’s victims, but he acknowledges this in the end and backs up his speculations with medical and psychiatric research. What’s also interesting in the book is learning how much our current lives depend on things that debuted at the fair. Shredded Wheat, alternating current, incandescent light bulbs, belly dancing – we know about it today because it was at the fair. Hoards of well-known names also appeared – Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley had shows there. In one instance a young girl hugs the man who invented a machine that types Braille. That girl is Helen Keller. A man named Elias Disney was part of the fair’s construction team and Larson imagines that watching the proceedings had a profound effect on his son, Walt. L. Frank Baum visited. I half expected there to be a scene where a man reaches the fair by walking across the surface of Lake Michigan and the text to read, “It was the Lord Jesus Christ who had come to see the fair and He saw the fair and it was good.”

As a Chicagoan, though, the book held special significance for me. I’d encourage anyone to read this, but I don’t think someone who has never been to this city would love it quite as much. There’s something magical in reading about the fair and being able to picture the locations as they are today. I spent four years tramping across the Midway Plaisance during my time at the U of C. I’ve been to the fair’s Palace of Fine Arts and traipsed through it’s lawn, now the Museum of Science and Industry. When Larson describes the other contributions this group of architects made to the city, such as an acoustically perfect theater, he doesn’t even have to name the structure for me to immediately catch the reference (the Auditorium Theatre on Congress). I just don’t think you can get these things without having lived here. Maybe that’s what I loved most about it and why I saw it in so many hands over the years. The book is about the good and the bad housed together, the incredible and the demonic, the White City and the Black, but for all of that, it’s about this place that we all love. This place we call home. For that, we love it.

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