Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson weaves a mesmerizing tale around happenings of Chicago in the 1890s. The design and construction of the infamous World's Fair take center stage in the book, but at the time of all the exciting activities surrounding the fair, an extremely crafty serial killer takes many lives.

In DITWC, the reader not only learns about the massive amount of planning, money, and sheer determination it took to build the Fair, but also comes to know the men who dedicated years of their lives to the undertaking. Daniel H. Burnham was the man basically in charge of the entire campaign. His skills, vision and charisma were the driving forces behind accomplishing the seemingly impossible task of constructing the entire Fair in approximately two years. Frederick L. Olmsted was the landscape architect who oversaw the entire grounds of the Fair. Considering the fact that before construction began, the fair grounds consisted of desolate ground and little to no trees or greenery, his work was nothing short of amazing.

At the same time the leading men in the architectural and engineering fields in America were putting their heads together to figure out how to best Paris's Exposition, a young doctor known as H. H. Holmes began building his "castle" to suit his very specific needs. He was a person who seemed personable, sincere and caring to those who he came in contact with. However, there were several people who felt uneasy when he was near--and for a very good reason! He was an extremely sneaky and evil man, with absolutely no moral compass, who derived pleasure from being deceitful, having complete control over others, and ultimately--killing. What is so surprising is how long he got away with his many crimes.

DITWC not only gives the history of the World's Fair, and one of the first known serial killers in America, but also gives the reader a glimpse into many other huge historical events at the turn of the 19th century. Labor unions start to play a large role in the work force, and major leaders of the movement, such as Samual Gompers, begin to make a name for themselves. Women were beginning to fight for the rights to be heard and the ability to vote--Jane Addams and Susan B. Anthony were both attendees of the Fair. Many inventions make their debut around this time, some of them actually at the Fair--Shredded Wheat, the telephone, the zipper, and boxed pancake mix are just a few. So many interesting things are all happening during this time, and Larson found a way to include so many of them in this one book.

My thoughts--I found Devil in the White City to be a highly engrossing book. I cannot imagine the amount of time Erik Larson spent doing research. He mentions in his notes at the end of his book, that he did not hire any researchers or use the internet, but instead went to libraries and archives to find his information. I think what makes this particular book so great is the fact that Larson himself was so interested in the subject matter. He states, "The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambition (393). One can easily see how man's ambitions and desires can take two opposite paths. Burnham is remembered in history a the man who would not give up and made Chicago one of the greatest cities in America. H. H. Holmes's (Mudgett) is compared to Jack the Ripper and known as a psycopathic serial killer. I don't understand why people trusted him so much. Young women had no fear of spending much of their time with him in his strange, dark castle. I understand that times have changed, but especially since disappearances were a fairly regular occurance then, it seems that single women living on their own would have been more cautious.

In talking with others and reading reviews, I have found that many people were somewhat bogged down by all the description of the politics and construction during the Fair. Though the writing about the architectural processes is pretty detailed, I found it to be extremely interesting. It took me a few chapters to get into the swing of the writing, and I was forced to slow down and really pay attention, but I truly enjoyed all aspects of the book--the history, the character development, the statistics, the descriptions, the pictures (though I wish there would have been a few more), and the author's notes. (I think it probably helps that my husband works in construction management, so I have gained an appreciation for all the work that goes into a building.) I would have to agree with the review from Elle "The combination of the birth of Chicago as a world-class city, the magic of the Fair, and the creepy serial killer makes for a compelling read."

Date completed: May 14, 2008
# of pages: 396
4.5/5 stars

Joy and raidergirl3 have also reviewed this book. If you've read and reviewed DITWC, please let me know, and I'll happily add your link!


Stephanie said...

This is one of my selections for the Non-Fiction 5 as well!! Glad you liked it. Great review!

sage said...

I read this book and enjoyed it, Larson's writing engages you so that once you start, you can't put down. Good review.

Trish said...

Great review Laura! I'm glad that you liked this book so much--this book definitely made me think about nonfiction in a different way--that it doesn't have to be dry and dull. Books like this certainly would have made secondary research in school much more pleasant.

Heather Johnson said...

I've been going back and forth on this book, trying to decide whether to read it or not. I listened to the audio version of Larson's other book Thunderstruck a while ago. It does the same type of thing - balances the invention of the wireless, long-distance telegraph with a creepy murder and attempted escape. But even listening to the audio version, I felt like skimming over many sections. It seemed to drag with too many details and I felt like it took a VERY long time to get to the climax. But I've been hearing good things about THIS book, so maybe I'll have to give Larson a second try ...

raidergirl3 said...

I really liked the book. All the developments that happened because of the fair were so neat to read about. My review is: here

Katherine said...

I read this book last fall, and loved it! At points I kept thinking the whole thing was fictional. Have you read Thunderstruck, his follow up? It too is excellent--its about the Marconi wireless system and how it was used to catch two criminals. Very entertaining.

Laura said...

~Stephanie--I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

~Sage--I definitely had a difficult time putting this book down. Thanks for visiting!

~Trish--I'm hoping the other non-fiction books I'm going to read are as engrossing as this one. After reading this one, I have some hope for reading non-fiction more frequently.

~Heather--I haven't read Thunderstruck, but the reviews weren't nearly as good as they were for Devil. I probably would have had a difficult time listening to an audio version though. I had to re-read passages several times to really be able to visualize what Larson was describing.

~Raidergirl3--Thanks for sharing your review. I always like reading others' thoughts and opinions. I've added your link to my post.

~Katherine--I haven't read Thunderstruck yet. The reviews I've seen haven't been as good, but I enjoyed this one so much, I think I'll probably read the next one as well!

Susie said...

I listened to the audiobook version of this book a couple of years ago. The reader's slightly creepy voice really added a lot to the ambiance of the story. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it!

Literary Feline said...

I have heard such good things about this book and I definitely hope to read it one day. Thanks for the great review!