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Erik Larson Is An American Treasure, “Thunderstruck” Is The Proof

June 6, 2011

Each time I finish a book by Erik Larson I wonder when I can get my hands on another of his fascinating reads.  As I was about to finish “Thunderstruck” I knew the answer was only a short time away as Larson’s latest book,  “In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin was already being mailed to me from an online bookseller.  The book details the early years of the Nazi party’s take-over of Germany in 1933 and 1934. 

I suspect for many of Erik Larson’s readers it is the same, always wanting more of his work to open up, and tell others about. 

As a history aficionado I rave about good historians, and marvel at the abilities of these skilled writers to compose strong narratives.  I am aware there are many great writers and researchers about all facets of history, but I am most mindful there are only a few superb ones who attain an even more lofty spot on the bookshelves.

I am proud to say Erik Larson makes for the top shelves on my bookcases.

It was last year that I read “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America”.   Though the book was written in 2003, I found the marvelously researched story of the 1893 Chicago World Fair opening up to me seven years after most others had already fawned over it.  It was during the reading of this book that I felt wrapped in complete perfection over a book.  That rarely happens.

“…it lasted just six months, yet during that time its gatekeepers recorded 27.5 million visits, this when the nation’s total population was 65 million. On its best day the fair drew more than 700,000 visitors…..They tasted a new snack called Cracker Jack and a new breakfast food called Shredded Wheat….The fair occupied over square mile and filled more than two hundred buildings. A single exhibit hall had enough interior volume to have housed the U.S. Capitol, the Great Pyramid, Winchester Cathedral, Madison Square Garden, and St. Pauls Cathedral, all at the same time.”

Erik Larson first and foremost is a researcher, and clearly one that finds history engaging and alive.  The vast amount of time spent with diaries, newspapers, and artifacts has allowed him that sensation of knowing the past lives, and the characters he writes about, almost interacts with, are still a part of our continuing story.  Larson creates his text to give life to the pages of yellowed diaries and faded newsprint.  For better or worse, the past never dies.

The best part of Larson’s ability to wow an audience is with his skill of purposeful writing.  Each of his books are weaved with countless ‘spokes of the wheel’ that add insight and perspective to the main stories that are being told.  While there are others who have strengths at mending words together to create the past coming alive again, I have found few who can achieve it the way Larson does…over and over.

In “Thunderstruck” we are told of the creation of tabloid journalism in England with photos of King Edward’s children making the paper, and then how Guglielmo Marconi’s wedding pictures were the second such splashy feature.  With effortless and seamless entries Larson pulls the reader into the period where the larger story unfolds.  There were times I swore the sound of a hansom was coming down the street from the words Larson penned.

In “Thunderstruck“, as Random House notes, the chase for a murder suspect is aided by the newest technology of the time…the wireless!

In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men—Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication—whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time.

Set in Edwardian London and on the stormy coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public with visions of a world transformed, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime.

Weather phenomena has always drawn my attention so Erik Larson’s “Isaac’s Storm” which recounts the September 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas that claimed 8,000 lives was just impossible to put down.  The main character, Isaac Cline, is a meteorologist in search of understanding the mysteries of weather, but in the end was in over his head with the monster storm about to slam the Texas town.

As noted on my blog February 2010, “To be honest Larson had me when he used the phrase “calving icebergs” when writing about the results of the warm temperatures that was so common in 1900. And yes, I thought that such a neat use of words I said, “James….listen to this……..”)

As summer nears, beaches call, or a cabin in the woods beckon I can assure my readers there can be no better addition to your suitcase or knapsack than one of Erik Larson’s books.  After all, Erik Larson is an American Treasure.

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