Considering all the earthquake talk and stories about animals fleeing Yellowstone (but not really), I figured now would be a good time for a review of Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World: American and the Great California Earthquake of 1906.
I admit that I sometimes like to read disaster nonfiction (I don’t get out enough anymore) and from the title it seems like a disaster story, but it is much more than that. Winchester in good geologist fashion gives you the entire view of why the earthquake happened and not just a description of its aftermath. Quite frankly it makes the story more engaging if quite a bit longer. It isn’t just death, gore, and destruction, but you feel you’ve learned a few new things along the way.
So, it is the story of the Great California Earthquake of 1906 and its fiery aftermath. To set up that story up though he begins with plate tectonics. (Side note: It KILLS me that plate tectonics was only discovered in the 1960s. I remember learning about it in school and thinking that it was the one science thing that just made sense. When I read Winchester’s Krakatoa I was floored by the fact that it was a recent discovery.) He then takes a long trip from one edge of the North American plate to the other. He starts in Iceland and moves across North America to California giving science and history lessons along the way. My favorite chapters were actually the social histories of California during the gold rush and in the period before the earthquake, but the science holds up too for the non-scientist.
The closing chapters are of interest considering recent events/news. He visits Yellowstone and talks to some geologists there who are studying the geysers. One of the fun sentences in this chapter is “Yellowstone is thus, on purely statistical grounds, ready for an eruption almost any day.” At least he reaffirms that I don’t want to live anywhere in California, or the west coast, or west of the Mississippi. At least not until I’ve lived a long full life and have made peace with my maker.
Incidentally, this book has one of the best description of dawn I’ve ever read. In his prologue he asks you to imagine watching the earth from the moon as dawn arrives on April 18, 1906, the morning of the earthquake. He says “To the east of the line, all would have been bright and daylight. To the west, an impenetrable dark.” When the earthquake happens it would have been indiscernible from space, a mere shrug of the planet, but on land it was nothing but hell.
Simon Winchester is shaping up to be one of my favorite writers. He deftly creates readable descriptions of difficult scientific ideas while placing the science in the social and historical context. In this book, he is at the top of his game.