Friday, March 31, 2017

Book Review: Isaac's Storm

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
Erik Larson
History, meteorology

I expected to really like this book. Erik Larson is a master of non-fiction with the pacing and drive of fiction. The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake in particular are great reads--histories that read like thrillers.

Isaac's Storm reads like fiction, too. In fact, it reads a little bit too much like fiction. Larson's reach exceeds his grasp. He's trying to achieve a kind of profundity; he wants to say something about hubris, about technology, about society, about the turn of the century, about nature. But in his eagerness to present these greater themes, Larson--at best--distorts and embellishes his facts.

A certain amount of license is permissible in a book like this. If you know that the eponymous Isaac Cline took a carriage ride, and you know that the roads were surfaced with oyster shells, it's OK to say that "The wheels of Isacc's sulky broadcast a reassuring crunch as they moved over the pavement of crushed oyster shells." It's a little less forgivable in my book to describe--poetically, and without attribution or citation--how things looked and felt and seemed to the people involved, but it's a venial sin. There's too much of it in Isaac's Storm, and it gets rather purple on occasion, but I could forgive it.

However, when part of your attempted theme involves blackening people's reputations, it's not acceptable to make up stuff about those people. For example:
There were dreams. Isaac fell asleep easily each night and dreamed of happy times, only to wake to gloom and grief. He dreamed that he had saved [his wife]. He dreamed of the lost baby.
Only if you happen to look in the end notes will you find this:
248. There were dreams: I base this observation on human nature. What survivor of a tragedy has never dreamed that the outcome had been different.
And, similarly, this:
232. Isaac checked: what Isaac Cline did in the days immediately after the storm is a mystery. I have based this paragraph and others that follow on my sense of Isaac's character . . .
And this:
258. Isaac kept the ring: Isaac nowhere states this. It is conjecture, purely, but I base it on a number of things, particularly: Isaac's essentially romantic character . . .
These all come near the end of a book in which Larson uses Isaac Cline (who was the resident Weather Bureau meteorologist) as a symbol and exemplar of Man's Hubris in the Face of Nature; casts doubt on his personal accounts of the event; downplays his role in warning the city of Galveston; plays up his rivalry with his brother Joseph; and dramatizes his mistaken decision to trust in the solidity of his house. He may well be in the right, but his technique is not kosher. It's one thing to ornament the documentation if you're not trying to make value judgments--if, let us say, you're presenting an allegedly-straight recitation of events. When you do make value judgments, and then support those value judgments with truthy factoids that you made up, the term for what you're doing is no longer "nonfiction"; it's "propaganda".

I really did want to like Isaac's Storm. Instead, it substantially lessened my confidence in Erik Larson as an author.

Isaac's Storm has a strong crossover with The Weather Experiment, which details 19th-century scientists' first attempts to understand and predict weather. Another hurricane history--and in my opinion a better book--is R. A. Scotti's Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938.


  1. All three of those end-notes are just weaselly ways of saying "I made it up." Few writers have the intellectual honesty of Samuel Johnson, who in his Dictionary gave the derivation of "tatterdemalion" as "tatter and I know not what."

    1. Quite so. I had hoped for better from a writer whose works I had hitherto enjoyed.

    2. I really liked Devil in the White City and Dead Wake, but I didn't like Thunderstruck, partly because it was a clumsily artificial attempt at mixing two essentially unrelated stories that didn't illustrate each other even thematically, but mostly because Larson was clearly attributing thoughts and motives to people that he couldn't possibly have known.

    3. My main objection to Thunderstruck was the artficiality. Larson didn't even make it clear that the events he was describing were a decade apart until well into the book, which was a clear attempt to finesse the problem.

      The attributing-thoughts-and-motives problem is merely irritating in a book that's essentially neutral. It's especially vexing in Isaac's Storm, because Isaac's Storm has a thesis to push, and Larson assigns the thoughts and motives in such a way as to bolster the thesis. It's as if I'd written a book proposing that Winston Churchill was actually Jack the Ripper, and in it described Churchill as feeling "tormented, repressed rage against all women" and "dreams of blood and ichor"--without mentioning that there was no documentation for these assertions. If I'm allowed to "base my observations on human nature", I can "prove" anything.