Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

This book was very generously sent to me in a package of books (thanks, E! I am eternally in your debt) and had been sitting on my top shelf awaiting the right time to be read. After Possession was a bust, its time had finally come. It took me a while to get into it, but by the middle I was reading with pleasure and am glad to have read it as part of the challenge.

The book is both the tale of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and of a serial killer that used the fair to lure victims to their deaths. The subtitle is "Murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America," so I was expecting the focus of the novel to be on the killings. It was a nice surprise to discover that the focus of the book is almost always the fair and the struggle to pull it off. The Paris World's Fair had recently astounded the globe with the elegance of the Eiffel Tower, and Chicago was determined to outshine its predecessor.

The book delves into the history of the bids for the fair, the snarky competition among architects (who knew?), and the art of managing to design and build the fair within a limited amount of time. The first part of the novel sets the stage and introduces the unknown characters, and was a bit of a snooze for me. Once Chicago won the bid, though, the pace picked up and I was absorbed by the character development and progress of the location. One of the most interesting people was Olmstead, a landscape architect, who made me think differently about the way parks are designed. I'm going to look at green public spaces differently from now on. Other interesting people connected with the fair are also featured, such as Buffalo Bill.

Another charming point about the book was discovering all the famous products and inventions that were displayed at the fair. I won't name them here because I don't want to spoil the fun, but I came away with some fun tidbits that I hope I'll remember later on.

Along with the "spunky city makes it" story as well as the "things that you know but didn't realize were connected with the Chicago World's Fair" story comes the "cunning serial killer" story. In my present state of mind I am not very interested in knowing gory details, and thankfully I felt they didn't get too out of hand. The resolution of what happened took up the last part of the book, but I was left marveling at the triumph of Chicago rather than feeling ill because of some man's depravity.

In the end, I can't say that this will be one of my favorite books but I'm happy enough that I read it. I've taken away some neat little historical tidbits that I hope I'll remember once I manage to finally see Chicago. It also left me with a question: Whatever happened to the World's Fair? I remember going to the one in Knoxville, but don't recall any after that.


Betty C. said...

This book sounds quite interesting to me.

I hated Possession, BTW!

the fabulous adventures of sarah said...

Happy T-day from across the pond!
My love to you & your family!!