Book Review: The Devil in the White City

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America.

I’m convinced that the majority of people who hate history do so because history is so often taught so badly one couldn’t help but hate it. In order to kindle (or rekindle) our affection for history, we should take note of the fact that the bulk of the word itself is story.

History is simply a reflection upon the reality of life from a particular perspective, possibly with a particular goal. Life is not a stark collection of dusty dates and impossible-to-remember names; life is a story: events flowing after one another, flowing from one another, flowing to another. A good historian is one who does the hard work of research and analysis and then proceeds to do the possibly harder work of presenting that as a coherent story.

Erik Larson does so well at this that he has to include a disclaimer at the beginning of the book: this is not fiction. Whatever is in quotation marks is an actual quote taken from memoirs, letters, newspapers, etc. This is history so well done that we have to be reminded that it is, in fact, fact.

This is the story of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, the birthplace of Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit, and the world-famous Ferris Wheel. The buildings were painted white to showcase the natural beauty of Lake Michigan behind and to reach for splendor and glory in themselves–at least more than New York could do. Larson details the hardships, tragedies, and triumphs of the architects who saw the White City come to pass and be the success it turned out to be.

Larson also tells the story of a ruthless, psychopathic serial killer whose personality and methods seem to be taken straight from police procedural shows of today. Mudgett’s (alias Holmes alias …) murders are not recounted in lurid detail; Larson’s masterful storytelling comes through as much in his discretion as his research and detail. The effect turns out to be far more effective and chilling. The heart of a truly evil–perhaps even demonic–man is shown for all to see.

This is a great book–history very well done. I’m curious about Larson’s other works, given how well this one was done.

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