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The Devil in the White City – Book Review

Its official name was the World’s Columbian Exposition, its official purpose to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, bu under Burnham, its chief builder, it had become something enchanting, known throughout the world as the White City. -From The Devil in the White City, page 4-

And in Chicago a young handsome doctor stepped from a train, his surgical valise in hand. He entered a world of clamor, smoke, and steam, refulgent with the scents of murdered cattle and pigs. he found it to his liking. -From The Devil in the White City, page 12-

Erik Larson has written an evocative and compelling novel about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the first known serial killer to strike on American soil. Told in alternating chapters, Larson reveals the excitement and creativity of man’s imagination in the building of the fair, juxtaposed with the horrific destruction of an evil man’s fantasies. Larson’s ability to create setting and suspense, make The Devil in the White City read more like fiction than non fiction.

Cab drivers cursed and gentled their horses. A lamplighter scuttled along the edges of the crowd igniting the gas jets atop cast-iron poles. Abruptly there was color everywhere: the yellow streetcars and the sudden blues of telegraph boys jolting past with satchels full of joy and gloom; cab drivers lighting the red night-lamps at the backs of their hansoms; a large gilded lion crouching before the hat store across the street. In the high buildings above, gas and electric lights bloomed in the dusk like moonflowers. -From The Devil in the White City, page 17-

I found myself sinking into the story of the fair – relishing the details like the inventors who proposed outrageous ideas to “out Eiffel the Eiffel” and descriptions of the devices and concepts which were new in 1893, but which we now take for granted (moving pictures, the first zipper, an electric kitchen, an automatic dishwasher, boxed pancake mix, and Cracker Jacks to name a few). Set against the backdrop of the labor unions and economic depression, the novel reveals the true spirit of man’s endurance and determination. The 1893 World’s Fair is with us today every time we watch The Wizard of Oz (who’s Emerald City was inspired by the tremendous architecture of the fair), or when we celebrate Columbus Day, or when we stroll down a carnival midway or ride a Ferris Wheel. Larson’s accessible prose puts it all together for the reader without weighing her down with facts.

Larson’s parallel story about H. H. Holmes – the first American serial killer – is just as compelling and provides the dark side to the White City.

I found some great Internet sites of photos and information about the fair here and here and here.

This is a novel I can highly recommend. Rated 4.5/5

5 Comments

  1. Anonymous Anonymous
    September 13, 2007    

    Great review – sounds such a stimulating book. It has certainly given you some food for thought. May be I should go for it too!
    Julie

  2. Anonymous Anonymous
    September 15, 2007    

    Fabulous Wendy, I’m glad you liked it. Its funny, though, how different readers are drawn to different aspects. While the fair was fascinating, I was really pulled into the story of HH Holmes and couldn’t wait until his story was revealed inch by inch. I read his next book Thunderstruck, but while I liked it it didn’t have the same oumph as this one.

  3. Anonymous Anonymous
    September 16, 2007    

    Thanks for your input on Thunderstruck, Trish – this is one I was thinking of reading at some point.
    I know what you mean about HH Holmes – it was an excellent parallel story that added the spark to the novel, I thought.

  4. Anonymous Anonymous
    September 16, 2007    

    Thanks, Julie! Yes, you should read it. Most of the reviewers have loved it!

  5. Anonymous Anonymous
    September 17, 2007    

    Thunderstruck was still a good book, but it just didn’t have the same spark for me. I didn’t seem to have as many “honey, listen to this tidbit!” moments as Devil did, which is part of why I loved the book so much.

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