…this is not a straightforward account of the earthquake and subsequent fire but a first-person melange of geology textbook and travelogue grafted onto a recounting of the events that destroyed San Francisco 100 years ago next spring. It's a proudly idiosyncratic book…that places Winchester firmly in the category of author-as-raconteur…Maybe the problem is false advertising…subtitling [the book] America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 suggests not only a new narrative history but an analysis of how the quake changed the country. That's not here. What is hereconsuming half the book, in factis a geology treatise delivered by a roguish old professor who is simply gaga for granite. Winchester has some obvious faults, but lack of enthusiasm isn't one of them.
The New York Times Book Review
In this brawny page-turner, bestselling writer Winchester (Krakatoa, The Professor and the Madman) has crafted a magnificent testament to the power of planet Earth and the efforts of humankind to understand her. A master storyteller and Oxford trained geologist, Winchester effortlessly weaves together countless threads of interest, making a powerfully compelling narrative out of what he calls "the most lyrical and romantic of the sciences." Using the theory of plate tectonics introduced in 1968 by an obscure geologist, J. Tuzo Wilson, Winchester describes a planet in flux. Across the surface of the earth, huge land masses known as plates push and pull at each other. At 5:12 a.m. in 1906, the North American and Pacific plates did precisely that. Along a 300-mile fault east of the Gold Rush city of San Francisco, the earth, in Winchester's word, "shrugged." While the initial shock devastated large parts of the city, it was the firestorm that raged in the days following that nearly wiped San Francisco off the map. The repercussions of the disaster radiated out from the epicenter for years to come. Locally, Winchester finds in the records at City Hall that the destruction led to a huge rise in Chinese immigration. Winchester also cites the tragedy in the rise of the nascent Pentecostal movement, whose ranks swelled in the months and years after in the belief that the catastrophe had been a sign from God. With fabulous style, wit and grace, Winchester casts doubt on the very notion of solid ground and invites the reader to ponder the planet they live on, from both inside and out. B&w illus. and maps. (Oct. 4) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
The centennial of the San Francisco earthquake is coming up in April 2006, and the authors of these two distinct new histories of the event each frame their work within their own particular expertise. Former firefighter Smith (Report from Engine Co. 82) takes a look at the famous San Francisco disaster from a firefighter's point of view. He recounts the events by focusing on some of the major actors, such as the heroic naval officer who saved the piers, the surprisingly effective if wholly corrupt Mayor Abe Ruef, Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, and Gen. Frederick Funston, who probably did a lot to destroy the city through misguided management of men and explosives. While Smith does reveal the factors that made the fire so devastating, such as lack of building codes, flammable materials, and insufficient firefighting infrastructure, he concentrates on the human side, effectively telling the many stories of heroism, stupidity, cowardice, strength, bad luck, and good fortune bred by the fire. This is a readable and exciting book. Winchester (Krakatoa), an Oxford-trained geologist, starts with a lengthy dissertation on the history of geology and the development of the tectonic plate theory, now the generally accepted model for earthquake production. In the course of a ramble from Iceland to the western edge of the North American plate, which runs directly under San Francisco, he manages to cover the New Madrid earthquake, a variety of familiar and unfamiliar faults, and quite a bit of interesting lore about the complex California geology. The author does describe the 1906 event in considerable detail but goes further to place it in context with the earth's geologic history and discusses the effect it had on a century of American history. An outstanding work, less accessible but more intellectually stimulating than Smith's, Winchester's title would be well placed in most public libraries and is likely to be popular over time. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/05.]-Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From Chinatown street corners to outer space, an enlightening and edifying examination of the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake of April 1906 and how it shaped subsequent American history. Winchester (Krakatoa, 2003, etc.) aims to explain the quake in the context of a planet largely indifferent to human existence. To do that, he drives cross-country the length of the North American Plate, which begins in Iceland, visiting the sites of past quakes (Charleston, 1886; New Madrid, Mo., 1811) and reminding readers that there will be others in those areas, likely with more devastating results because of higher population density. All of civilization is, in effect, surfing on a series of plates that still crash into one another billions of years after the planet formed. This makes the Gold Rush Era decision to build what was the West's grandest metropolis all but a taunt to nature. The San Francisco earthquake and fire that followed killed as few as 600 and as many as 3,000 and shaped history in surprising ways. The master plan to rebuild the city in the spirit of Washington, D.C., went unrealized, but buildings were required to be fire- and tremor-resistant. After the disaster, "San Francisco's crown began to slip" and Los Angeles would evermore be the West's great city. Among those affected most by the quake were members of San Francisco's Chinese community. Chinatown was leveled and immigration records burned, leaving city officials with no clear idea of "just who the people were." Subsequent racist immigration reforms made it difficult for Chinese to enter the United States and had the unanticipated effect of ensuring that only the most clever and determined were allowed in. By acoincidence of timing, Winchester writes-allowing that it's a bit of a stretch-the quake even galvanized the fledgling Pentecostalist movement, which would have a long-ranging political and religious impact. Winchester is an engaging tour guide, and his tale a humbling one. Humankind exists, he concludes, by "the planet's consent."