A natural catastrophe inspires ordinary people to extraordinary heroism.
Like the aftershocks of the earthquake that rocked Anchorage in 1964, this immersion in a barely remembered disaster shows how thematic implications continue to reverberate. In this impressively rendered narrative, longtime New York Times Magazine writer-at-large Mooallem (Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, 2013) seamlessly blends together a character study, an examination of the character of a community, a chronicle of what happened, and an inquiry into the human soul. The title refers not only to life’s chanciness, but also to the protagonist, a part-time radio reporter named Genie Chance, who became the voice of calm reassurance to Anchorage and then earned fleeting fame as the voice of Alaska. The author ably describes the earthquake, the most powerful in North American history: “The earth yawned open and swallowed cars….The sounds of the earthquake were part of the dreamlike incoherence. Most people mistook the low growl of the churning earth for a nuclear bomb.” Mostly, however, he focuses on the people and the aftermath, specifically how the disaster brought out the best in people, who followed their best instincts when there was no clear line of authority and behaved with “a staggering amount of collaboration and compassion.” Initially, skeptical readers might question the account: How did an author born long after the incident learn so much that he is able to recount so precisely. Why does he frame the events in reference to Our Town (playing at the community theater at the time), dividing the narrative into acts, bringing different characters onstage and then off? It isn’t until Mooallem introduces himself as a character and recounts the process of reporting that one fully appreciates the journalistic accomplishment, the implications of which extend from feminist activism to the field of “disaster studies.” Encouragingly, the major lesson is that “our goodness is ordinary.”
One finishes this book deeply impressed—with the people of Anchorage, with Genie Chance, and with the author.