The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson – 9781400076314 — *****
Genre: Nonfiction; American History; True Crime
Time to Read: 9 Days
The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (also called the World’s Columbian Exposition) was supposed to be one of the most shining moments in the history of Chicago and the United States, but the fair was haunted by a killer who used it as a hunting ground for young woman who had been newly loosed upon the world. The Devil in the White City brings readers back to the days before, during and after the fair, telling of the creation of that history-making exposition and outlining the horrific murders that went on during what was supposed to be the best World’s Fair in history.
I don’t normally read nonfiction, but something about this book caught my attention. I had heard that it was excellent, and that Erik Larson does not write like the stereo-typical history author, so I put it on my list of books to read. By the time I picked it up, I was excited to give The Devil in the White City a try, and I was by no means disappointed when I did.
The book yo-yo’s back and fourth between the creation of the Chicago World’s fair under the watchful eye of its head architect Daniel Hudson Burnham and the increasingly horrific yet ingenious actions of murderer Henry H. Holmes. Larson also puts in little tidbits about other major historical events and persons at that time (for example, he discusses Holmes’s interest in the newspaper articles about the White Chapel murders by Jack the Ripper and mentions how one of the men who worked on creating the White City–a man by the name of Disney–would go on to tell his son Walt about the fair and inspire him to create his own magical city). It also tells about some of the things invented for the World’s Fair that are common place today, and about the way the decisions of the Fair’s construction board changed the future of our country.
I am a fan of history, and I found this book wonderful brain food. I literally didn’t want to put it down, and I found myself actually learning about history in a way that all my past teachers would envy. The Devil in the White City reads like a really good documentary. One of those ones that you watch because there’s nothing else on, then find yourself glued to. I actually caught myself reading with great anticipation–Will they get everything done before the fair opens? Will they catch the killer?–even though I knew that everything had already happened in real life and I had a good idea of what was coming.
My only (minor) complaint about this book is the way Larson handles foreshadowing (if we can call it that in a history book). It isn’t in the least bit subtle, and he has a tendency to do it so early that I caught myself thinking that he’d left out the foreshadowed event (after all, to a history buff, maybe the things he eluded to were common knowledge, and there was no need to explain it any further). Unfortunately, I grew impatient in some cases and looked up the events that he foreshadowed, spoiling the parts in the book when he actually got to them (if it can be considered “spoiling,” since it’s all based on historical events).
I would certainly recommend The Devil in the White City to anyone with an interest in American History, True Crime, architecture and world events. I must also say that, if you are thinking about trying out nonfiction for the first time, this book is an excellent place to start. It doesn’t quite read like a novel, but it is, in some ways, even better than a make believe tale.
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