Friday, June 15, 2007

Fair Weather and The Devil in the White City: Book Review

My book club read The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Eric Larson this month - a re-read for me, although I confess I only skimmed most of the parts about Daniel Burnham the second time around. Since I grew up in Chicago's hinterland, I'm interested in history, and my grandmother had a little souvenir glass with the script "World's Fair 1893" on it, it was not hard to find at least some of this book fascinating. Other parts of Larson's book included a bit too much name dropping, heavy-handed foreshadowing, or were too gruesome for some of us.

Over a pitcher of sangria, my book club agreed that Larson really should have included some good maps in the book. Luckily, much of this information is available online, at sites like the University of Chicago's The Columbian Exposition, or the Chicago Historical Society's site. And this is a good place to also recommend one of my favorite books ever on Chicago: Nature's Metropolis, by William Cronon - though my brother says it has too many footnotes, I liked every one of them.

Anyway, I had recently read (and was blown away by) Richard Peck's A Year Down Yonder as part of a group blog about the Newbery award winners, so that when I saw that Peck had a children's book that took place during the World's Fair, I decided to check this one out, too.

Fair Weather was a wonderful book. In fact, I thought that it provided a more compelling description of the fair and its historical importance than The Devil in the White City, at least partially because Peck didn't try to include such a mass of facts in there. And it's not like I prefer easier (or children's) books more - Nature's Metropolis (see above), although one of the best-written works of environmental history that I've ever read, still isn't really an "easy read."

One of the things that surprised me when I re-read The Devil in the White City was how little I had retained after three years. On the other hand, I don't think that I will have any trouble remembering several of the scenes from Fair Weather for many years - partially because of the beauty of the writing.

I know that it's not really fair (no pun intended!) to compare a piece of historical fiction aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds to a New York Times non-fiction bestseller - but Larson's work is so well-known and (deservedly) widely appreciated, I can't help but put in a plug in for Peck's gentler work. Frankly, I've been surprised at how very much I have been enjoying all of the children's books that I've been reading for The Newbery Project.

Although there is no mention of H.H. Holmes (aka Herman Mudgett) in Fair Weather, the book does acknowledge the darker side of Chicago - in an age-appropriate manner:

We had us a good supper at the Old Vienna, though Granddad warned us not to order the bratwurst.

"Chicago's a meat-packin' town," he explained, "and once in a while a workin' man will fall into the grinder and come out as links of prime smoked sausage."

Lottie swallowed hard.

But we made a hearty meal out of sauerbraten, sour potato salad, and vinegared cucumbers. Over our heads the terrible wheel creaked. Across the Midway dancing girls writhed like serpents. (p. 68)

Peck's five page "Note from the Author", titled After the Fair, concludes the book with the most interesting and succinct summation of the fair that I've read (and that includes Devil in the White City and many scholarly and popular articles and essays). Even if you don't have the excuse of having kids that are the right age for Fair Weather, I definitely recommend it.

Here's an excerpt from the end that illustrates Peck's writing, and some of the enduring fascination that Larson and so many others see in the fair:

As we turned up into the sky, you didn't notice the straining and the clanking of that terrible wheel anymore. The great exposition began to fan out below us and all the pavilions were like frosted wedding cakes. It was the White City on blue lagoons against the endless lake. Golden statues caught the last of the setting sun. Then like sudden morning the electric lights came on. If I could show you anything, I would show you that. The searchlight turned, and everything was washed in light like there could never be darkness again. (p. 131-2)

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sage said...

Thanks for the introduction to Fairweather--sounds like a good book to read with my daughter. Even if she was up to reading Larson's book, I'm not ready for her to read Devil in the White City (I found the book gripping and distrubing as it shows evil at work).

Framed said...

The parts I enjoyed most about "The Devil in the White City" were the ones that described the building and opening of the World Fair. So I think I would really enjoy "Fair Weather."