Monday, August 22, 2011

"Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson

We’ve got a book review of a book that tells a most amazing story. It might be a tale of a famous world’s fair or it might be a shocking story of a serial killer. It mesmerizes, it teaches, it leaves the reader with so much to ponder. It’s “Devil in the White City”.

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”Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

It was a major effort to wrap my mind around the subject of this book. Which might be because the book had so many subjects the mind gets boggled.

The commonality in all of the topics covered in this book, written in 2003, is the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. This fair was called the White City but as the author amply illustrates, it was surrounded by the black of despair and horrible murder.

There were a bevy of famous people featured in this book. There were famous architects, including the designer of Central Park in New York as well as Jackson Park, the Chicago locale for Chicago’s world’s fair. The inventor of the Ferris wheel, George Ferris, built his first ride bearing his name at the Chicago World’s Fair. The Fair featured Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and such luminaries as Thomas Edison and Theordor Dreiser were part of the Fair’s surround.

One of the major subjects of the book was a fellow named Henry Holmes. The author alternated the various book chapters amongst the subjects of the Fair.

Holmes was a serial murderer and his connection to the fair was more logistical than as in any part of its creation.

I found myself hurrying through the sometimes mind-numbing tales of the angst of creating the fair to come again to a chapter about the infamous Holmes. Because it’s difficult to believe that such a cold-blooded human being could have walked this earth, murdering woman and children so cavalierly that it chills one’s soul.

In fact, Holmes own a pharmacy and hotel near the Chicago fair. He specifically had a special room housing a kiln that could hold an extremely high heat. He also would, if in need of money, hire a surgeon to strip bodies of his victims of all skin and flesh and would sell the skeletons to medical schools.

The author acquaints the reader with several of Holmes known victims, which included his own child. There were many females who succumbed to Holmes’ infamous charm and eventually met their faint in his chamber of horrors.

Which is not to say that the story of the Chicago World’s Fair wasn’t compelling. There was the assassination of the Mayor, the state of the country’s economy, desultory, streets filled with homeless, despair.

The infamous fair itself was a most magnificent creation for its era, as the reader learns. The Midway was a walk of wonder and a pre-cursor of Midways of fairs across the fruited plains, no doubt.

The author ends the book with the story of Holmes and how he eventually was captured and met his own fate.

It’s a teaching book. This reader learned so much about this major American event that I’d never known of even with an education all the way through college.

I was left with a lot of questions but they were good questions, questions an author who did his or her job would want the reader to have. I pondered an endeavor that cost so much in terms of money but also human life during such a dark economic time in America. I pondered such a wanton murderer could operate so blatantly and not get caught for so many years. I pondered that the Chicago World’s Fair might well have been the birthplace of modern architecture, both in building and landscaping.


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