Tuesday, October 15, 2013

History That Doesn't Come to Life

The Devil in the White City:  Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
by Erik Larson
Published by Crown
3 Out of 5 Stars

A brief list of things that generally don't strike my fancy: architecture, the Gilded Age, landscape design, metropolitan cities, politics (of the historical kind), and serial killers. So, for a novel that exclusively focuses on all of these things, the very fact that I made it through and maintained mild interest is quite extraordinary. However, my interest never really piqued above "mild" and, hence, the three star rating.

The Devil in the White City is really two stories: the planning and building of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the simultaneous planning and building of a serial killer's lair. Larson uses the convergence of these two storylines to juxtapose man's capacity for the divine against an equal capacity for evil. Two men become the embodiment of this dichotomy: Daniel Burnham, chief architect of the Exposition, who brought the dream of the "White City" to life, and H. H. Holmes, the psychopath who used the bustle of the World's Fair to lure victims to his real-life house of horrors. This intention seems to be summed up in a quote from the physician John L. Capen, who, reflecting upon Holmes's appearance, says of his eyes, "They are blue. Great murderers, like great men in other walks of activity, have blue eyes." Attention is drawn time and again to the startling blue eyes of both Burnham and Holmes, illustrating that each man would become "great" in his way.

However, Larson thankfully doesn't browbeat his reader with lengthy explorations of the nature of good and evil. Instead, he presents the extraordinary lives of each man during that fateful time and allows the reader to draw these comparisons. As the White City is built, America is presented with the dream of what it could be. A civilized country could emerge from the twilight of the frontier and our pioneer spirit could live on in a future where men like Tesla, Edison, and Ferris looked toward building the impossible. 

Despite the hopes and possibilities represented by the Columbian Exposition, there is also an undercurrent of darkness in the form of union strikes, economic collapses, and cities large enough to swallow ambitious men and women whole without leaving a trace--cities that serve as the perfect hunting grounds for a man like Holmes. 

These are compelling stories and, yet, they never quite came to life for me. Larson's research is obvious, but the pacing of the story is often slowed down by dry passages--especially those detailing the power struggles that occur during the planning of the Exposition. Larson is at his best while writing about Chicago itself, capturing the sights, smells, and sounds of a bustling and ambitious city eager to prove its worth as a cultural mecca to its more sophisticated counterpart, New York City. He's also adept at bringing historical characters to life (I particularly enjoyed it when Susan B. Anthony and Buffalo Bill cross paths). All in all, this is a worthwhile, if not riveting, read.

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