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The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

While on a trip to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry last summer, my mother took us on a trip to Wooded Island, a tiny island in the middle of a park that seems to pop out of nowhere. She explained that the island was a remnant of the Columbian Exposition, Chicago's very own World's Fair. She then went on to tell me that there was a book about the fair that she'd read prior to coming on a walk of landmarks with friends, and that the book was called The Devil in the White City.

The issue I tend to have with books rooted firmly in history is that they sometimes read like a history textbook. They feel bland, half-finished and devoid of a real storyline to pull me along. I usually end up abandoning the book midway through because it's simply so difficult to really emerse myself in. Not the case with The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. What could have ended up a boring history of a fair I knew little about was engaging and interesting, and showed the duality of the beautiful fair Chicago hosted and the darkness of the time peroid.

Going in, I have to admit that I had very little knowledge of the Columbian Exposition, or even what it was about. I was afraid that it would hamper my enjoyment of the book and in parts it did, but only slightly. Larson assumes a bit more background knowledge to historical events and personae than I think the average American layperson would have but he manages to weave the story around it so well that it's easy enough to see past. I felt disappointed that I didn't know some of the references, but not like I was truly missing out. And that, indeed, is the magic of this book; he manages to make everything feel very accessible, very close to home, and very in-reach, even though the subject matter took place over one hundred years ago.

One of the things I really liked about the book, too, was the fact that he told both the story of the fair and the story of a serial killer, and, while the serial killer was almost incidental to the fair, it really went together in a way I am not sure I can accurately describe. Larson paints for the reader a picture of a city living two lives: the White City of the fair, with its new inventions, its beautiful features, its enchanting world, and the Black City around it, full of slaughterhouses, crime, and a loss of humanity. It reads consistently like a good novel, and very few times was I bored or annoyed with it. The most interesting thing about the prose was, to me, that it picked up a great deal in the last quarter of the book, even though I felt that it was rather well-paced and engaging from the first. It's a remarkable, clever way to story-tell, given that the history could be numbing and simply isn't.

Larson obviously has a quirky and unique sense of humor, too, and there are occasionally amusing and almost macbre points that you cannot help but smile at. Overall, it was an engaging, thoughtful read, and well worth the time spent. An excellent book.


the forest-dweller

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