Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

★★★½

I dislike non-fiction. There, I said it. I’ve always disliked it, I probably always will, but alas, I know I have a problem and I know I need to widen my literary horizons. So this year I set out to read more books that are out of my comfort zone—that is, books that aren’t fantasy and young adult. I can’t say this was strictly by choice; it was more like I was getting sick of YA and fantasy novels following the same 5 devilplot points across the board. I would read a book, like it, then pick up another book that—although the names and setting had changed—felt exactly like the last. Some authors, like Leigh Bardugo, pull it off (which is why I binged the Grisha trilogy back-to-back and am now currently reading Six of Crows). Others don’t. I seemed to be reading more of those that don’t.

I read to be transported. Not to escape, but to experience. My whole life is based around collecting experiences. It’s the reason I’ll never commit to being a vegetarian—there are too many strange, foreign foods I haven’t tried. It’s the reason I never want to end up settling in one place for too long. And fantasy, the genre that used to transport me, was beginning to feel as familiar as reality. So, feeling miffed and bored with the types of books that used to make my spirit soar with geeky abandon, I vowed to set my sights higher this year: not only would I read more books than last year, I would read books I already own but have been too wishy-washy to begin.

Out of my handy dandy book-title dish I pulled The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, a book touted as one of the best introductions to non-fiction. Perfect. So I dug in.

I was hesitant, to be sure, but I was quickly engulfed in the picture Larson painted of late 19th-century Chicago, complete with evocative descriptions of filthy streets, destitute workers, the rank smell of horse dung and the slaughterhouses, and, of course, the complement to all of this darkness: the White City, the location of the 1893 World’s Fair.

The story follows three separate plot lines; one of the trials and tribulations of the builders of the fair, another of a deranged young man who goes on to commit a terrible crime, and the third, of course, about the infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes, who built a sprawling murder hotel and used the lure of the World’s Fair to ensnare women.

Again, as one who reads to be transported, this book was phenomenal. It was vivid and rich with trivia. For instance:

  • Olmstead, the man who designed the grounds of the White City, also designed Central Park, the Biltmore, and many other gardens and grounds.
  • Shredded wheat was introduced at the World’s Fair in 1893.
  • In an attempt to outdo the centerpiece of the 1889 Paris World’s Fair (the Eiffel Tower) the designers of the Chicago fair went all out and eventually invented the Ferris wheel.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright worked under one of the architects who helped design the fair.
  • The “snake charmer” song (also called “The Streets of Cairo, or The Poor Little Country Maid”) was a random, spur-of-the-moment creation by the young, brilliant Sol Bloom who helped design the Midway of the fair. He then went on to become a politician in New York and a delegate at the convention that established the United Nations; he also suggested the first words to the Preamble to the United Nations Charter.
  • Burnham, one of the original designers of the fair, went on to design many other buildings, including the Flatiron Building (originally known as the Fuller Building).

There were about a hundred other interesting factoids that I can’t seem to remember now, but it seems to me, a casual know-nothing, that this point in history had its fingers stuck in about a hundred other points in history, and went on to change our world in ways we may not recognize. Reading, I wanted nothing more than to step back in time and experience the whirlwind of change undergoing the country (and then promptly return to 2017, where we have sanitation laws).

This is where my enjoyment of the book comes to a relative halt. Because, if you recall, I can’t stand nonfiction. So for me, the majority of this book was a bore. I wanted to know more about H.H. Holmes and his crimes, but I didn’t want to know quite so much about all of the old white guys building the fair. Unfortunately, two of the three storylines had such tentative connections to the fair that their inclusion felt more like a way to add drama to the otherwise quite dull account of old men trying and repeatedly failing to build this fair. Without the inclusion of Holmes’ or Prenderghast’s chapters, of which details are scant, the story would have been a fairly tired, hum-drum collection of newspaper clippings tied together with bits of prose detailing the slow and often unfortunate creation of the Chicago Exposition.

So although the book was interesting, I wouldn’t quite be able to call it fascinating (there is a large gap, in my mind, between those two words). It taught me a lot of cool, historical facts (which I’ll be sure to fling out the next time I’m at a highbrow dinner party), but I do wish more focus had been placed on exploring the crimes connected (however slightly) to the fair, as I find that more interesting than a bunch of aging architects with cataracts and gout (be they geniuses or not). Overall, it just didn’t hold my attention.

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