Author: Erik Larson
Isaac’s Storm is a non-fiction book about a hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas in 1900 and killed more than 6,000 people. The style of the book reads much more like fiction than non-fiction however, as Larson frames the event primarily through first person accounts. With that description I’d imagine a book where there are lots of diary passages and direct quotes from survivors but that’s also not the case. Instead, the book features language like “Isaac looked off his front porch and saw…” and then a detailed description of the area around his house. At the back of the book is an extensive notes section explaining all the choices Larson made and how he was able to fill in details of the real life people’s day to day lives.
The main individual that Larson follows in this book is Isaac Cline, a member of the National Weather Bureau station in Galveston with the responsibility of tracking and predicting the weather. I’m sure the real life Isaac Cline (or his descendants) would not be thrilled with how he’s represented here as Larson paints him as a very flawed man. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that the actual benefit to having a meteorologist like Isaac present when the biggest hurricane in the nation’s history hit was much less than what Cline would claim later on in his life.
There are numerous other sections that switch perspectives, following the hurricane as it develops in the Gulf of Mexico, to it’s passage through Cuba and eventually through the town of Galveston. There are plenty of interesting moments affecting passenger ships and families hiding for safety. One moment in particular even had me choked up and needing to take a break from the book, as a family huddles together in a bathroom as water rises in the house and the small child being held by his father asks his final words, “papa, are we safe?”
This book had a slow build to it, and some of the earlier chapters detailing the scientific process that a hurricane follows when growing were particularly dry. However, two things ended up really making me enjoy it. The first was Larson’s unique framing device for telling these personal stories detailed above. The other was how quick the book was to read. At under 300 pages with plenty of chapter breaks and generous spacing, even the slow building story moved at a brisk pace and drew me in quickly.