Book Review: Isaac’s Storm
Posted October 19, 2014on:
Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, New York: Vintage Books, 1999, 323 pp.
I loved Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City when I read it more than 10 years ago, and I have given it to at least a half-dozen other people who have loved it too. He has a way of mixing together historical reporting with narrative storytelling about a particular set of real-life characters that makes it feel like reading a novel. I was drawn to The Devil in the White City because I have always been fascinated by the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. I never dug deeper into Larson’s work because I was drawn more to the topic than the author, until one of those people to whom I had lent The Devil in the White City returned the favor by giving me Isaac’s Storm. I read the whole thing in two days, staying up until 2:00 a.m. because I couldn’t put it down.
Isaac’s Storm tells the story of the massive hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas in September 1900, particularly through the eyes of Isaac Cline, the chief weather bureau official in Galveston at the time. Larson follows a similar style to the one he used in The Devil in the White City, telling the story by laying out thick detail and behind the scenes portraits that point toward why things unfolded as they did. He begins by drawing a detailed picture of the city of Galveston at the time of the storm, especially its competition with Houston and its vision as an idyllic paradise for business or pleasure. He also offers an intricate accounting of the history, politics and embattled nature of the national weather bureau at the time. Weather bureau officials were terrified of making mistakes, eager to downplay danger, and in competition with each other for accurate predictions–without permission to use any words that implied a dangerous storm was afoot.
Larson then introduces us to several central characters, the people through whose eyes we will come to see this story. Isaac Cline is primary, along with his family, which includes his brother Joseph. Joseph and Isaac are estranged in the years after the hurricane. While there is no clear answer as to why, Larson offers some hints and ideas about the roots of the tension, including their disagreement about how they should be responding to the 1900 Galveston storm. We also meet several children who survived the storm (this is quickly evident, because their accounts would not be available otherwise), and several ship’s captains who rode out the storm as well.
The tension of the book is palpable, because we as readers know what the people in the story do not–that the hurricane is bearing down on them, and more than 6,000 people will lose their lives. As the story builds, Larson introduces us, with affection, to person after person, and each time you meet a new character you wonder if they will be one of the lucky ones who survive, or the many who perished. Larson tracks the individual choices–left or right, north or south, stay or go–that are the difference between life and death. Once the storm hit Galveston, I couldn’t stop reading until I knew who lived or died.
Isaac’s Storm was a great read for anyone who likes history, weather, science, survival or just a good story. I found it a fact-packed page-turner, and now I want to find more of Larson’s work again.