During our Research Instruction classes we emphasize the value of primary sources for their ability to provide both raw, unfiltered data and a vivid perspective on an era or event. There really is no substitute for firsthand accounts, so for this edition of Weekend Reading we tried a little something different. Instead of having a librarian review a notable title we went straight to the source and interviewed one of our most recent acquisitions: Erik Larson’s National Book Award Finalist, The Devil in the White City.
Librarian: Before we begin, I have to comment on that eye-catching medallion stamp on your front cover. How did it feel to be a 2003 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction Category?
Book: Thank you for noticing! I’m quite honored to have been selected but still a bit disappointed not to have gotten the win. Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy is a fantastic book, but I thought my unique perspective on such an important national event (the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893) would clinch it. Especially since I also tell the story of one of America’s most notorious serial killers, Dr. H.H. Holmes, who used the fair to procure his victims.
Serial killer! That sounds a bit gruesome. Will readers be put off by the gory details?
I doubt it. The descriptions of the crimes are kept to a minimum and are more clinical and interesting than sensationalized. The main focus of my story is the intersecting lives of two fascinating men: Daniel Burnham, the architect who built the fair, and the serial killer Holmes. The details of the World’s Fair also play a pivotal part in the book.
Let’s build on that last one. Why was this particular World’s Fair so important?
The Chicago World’s Fair was viewed as the crowning achievement of the Gilded Age for the city of Chicago and America itself. Chicago, having been selected as host over cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., was desperate to prove itself worthy of the honor and cement itself as the country’s new capital of business and culture. In addition, the glamor and spectacle of the 1889 Exposition Universelle and unveiling of the Eiffel Tower in Paris had set the standard for international expos, propelling France into position as the world’s leader in architecture and industry. America needed this event to regain its world status.
The fair is also credited with ushering in the modern era of city planning and introducing cultural standards such as Cracker Jacks, the Ferris Wheel, Shredded Wheat, Columbus Day and the Pledge of Allegiance. Many noted personalities, among them Thomas Edison, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Buffalo Bill, and Helen Keller, also made memorable appearances there.
So it sounds like you actually tell three stories?
Yes, or the three stories add up into one larger story if you like the Gestalt view. The challenges Burnham faced to meet construction deadlines alone would be well worth the read. At one time or another geology, the weather, politics, threats, and discrimination all conspired against him, yet he still succeeded. And, like many notorious figures, Holmes’ story is as compelling as his deeds were abhorrent. He began his criminal career while he was a University of Michigan Medical student, where he stole cadavers for use in conducting elaborate insurance fraud schemes. His bizarre castle/hotel-full of traps, secret doors, and sliding layouts-was just being finished as the World’s Fair began construction across the street and provided him an ideal spot from which to lure his victims.
What elements of your story might surprise readers the most?
I think readers today will be most interested in the descriptions of back-room politics, graft and corruption, the underground world of alcohol distribution and brothel management, early Americana-all those things that have been romanticized or stereotyped actually have compelling historical roots. Truth is much stranger than mythology. For those used to America as a leader on the world stage the stress of proving international significance is a fascinating look into the ideals of the American psyche.
What kind of readers do you think you would appeal to?
All kinds, actually. I have a little bit of something for everyone; it says right there on my cover “murder, magic and madness at the fair that changed America.” I am technically historical nonfiction but I read more like a historical thriller than a dry biography or collection of anecdotes.
It sounds like a lot of HCC patrons will want to check you out. Are there any other books that fans of your story might enjoy?
If they are looking for gripping but true reads you can’t go wrong with Into the Wild (Jon Krakauer), Confederates in the Attic (Tony Horwitz), Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (John Berendt) or Explorers : Great Tales of Adventure and Endurance (Alasdair Macleod). If they are looking for some suspenseful fiction I recommend The Technologists (Matthew Pearl), Drood (Dan Simmons), The Marlowe Papers (Ros Barber) and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan).