So, for the middle part of the 2000’s, I saw everyone reading this book. Not all at once, mind you, but a lot of people over a sustained period of time. This, mixed with his Larson’s similarly covered In the Garden of Beasts, was one of the most sustained in popularity nonfiction books of the last decade.
And I never read it.
Until now, that is. As part of my TBR Pile Challenge for 2014, I’m tackling 12 titles that have been on my to be read list for over a year. This one I actually had on the shelf, so I decided that I needed to finish one of them before January was over. Even though I just got around to reviewing it in the middle of February.
This book tells a double story in alternating chapters, united by time and place. The high class story is about the Chicago World’s Fair, a major exhibition that built the white city that amazed visitors from around the world. However, the story of how it came to be was anything but business as usual, and Larson deftly makes the story of buildings and travel, architects and exhibits, pomp and pageantry accessible and incredibly informative. Seriously, American history isn’t really my jam, but reading this, I kept rooting for the world’s fair, and it makes me a little sad that I was born over a century too late to have ever seen it. It’s one of the places that won the day for alternate current electricity. It’s where the Ferris wheel was invented. It’s where the snake charming song came from:
So yeah, it was a big deal. And against the backdrop of the Pullman strikes, the Chicago slaughterhouse days, and the birth of Chicago as a majorly important American center of culture as well as commerce, this story of a beautiful city rising from the marsh of Lake Michigan through grit, determination, and a little bit of luck could easily stand on its own.
In the alternate chapters, Larson explores the life of H. H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer. Throughout his life, Holmes was responsible for 9 confirmed deaths and perhaps up to 27-200 (he confessed to 27 and at times claimed the number was as high as 200). Through his charming demeanor and sociopathic analysis of society, he was able to ward off creditors, build a massive Chicago hotel that people referred to as the “castle” for almost no money, woo women, and carry out his crimes with impunity. Oh, and he had like four wives. Not only did he woo and kill a bunch of women and kids, he couldn’t seem to stop collecting them either.
Seriously though, this guy is such a creep. So when the detective from back east starts going after him with his super methodical and dogged style, you can see an archetype being born. And when he’s caught, and subsequently hung, I breathed a sigh of relief.
The best thing that can be said for any sort of split narrative piece is that when a chapter of one story ends, you wish it would go on longer…you just can’t bare to go back to the other story. But by the end of that next chapter, you wish that’s the story that would keep going. It’s a credit to Larson that he made this story engaging, immersing, narrative-driven, and hugely readable. Great job.
JMF Rating: 7.5/10
‘Til next time,