Timely and thoughtful, if not always well told.



Scholarly recounting of America’s most catastrophic urban disasters, from the tipped-over lantern that set colonial Boston ablaze in 1760 to the flames that erupted when terrorist-piloted airliners slammed into the World Trade Center.

Hoffer (History/Univ. of Georgia; Past Imperfect, 2004, etc.) is as much interested in the causes and effects of the fires as in the blazes themselves. His inclination for historical detail and academic analysis often bogs down the narrative in a blizzard of digressions, statistics and footnotes. The frequently wooden, inert prose doesn’t help; portions of the text read like a committee report. Elsewhere, however, the narrative is more compelling, especially when Hoffer embellishes the history with anecdotal detail. He tracks the origin of Pittsburgh’s famous 1845 fire to an Irish washwoman who left a kettle untended, then explains why the city’s insurance companies promptly went bankrupt (gross under-funding). He blames Chicago’s 1871 blaze not on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, but on two careless youngsters who stopped in her barn for a smoke. He describes dramatically the heroic last stand by 37 fire companies from Baltimore, New York and Washington that saved what was left of Baltimore from the fire of 1904. Heroes and villains abound as the story moves to more modern times. During the four hellish days of arson and looting that nearly destroyed Detroit in 1967, firefighters dodged sniper bullets to doggedly extinguish the multiplying fires. When wildfires tore through the stately homes lining the hillsides above Oakland in 1991, volunteers and desperate homeowners joined overworked California firefighters to contain the blaze. The book’s high point is Hoffer’s examination of the World Trade Center attack, which couples numerous tales of bravery on the part of rescue workers with some well-researched observations on how more lives might have been saved. Fires can never be completely prevented, the author acknowledges, but their effects can be ameliorated by proper planning.

Timely and thoughtful, if not always well told.

Pub Date: May 1, 2006

ISBN: 1-58648-355-2

Page Count: 450

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2006

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.


Custer died for your sins. And so, this book would seem to suggest, did every other native victim of colonialism.

Inducing guilt in non-native readers would seem to be the guiding idea behind Dunbar-Ortiz’s (Emerita, Ethnic Studies/California State Univ., Hayward; Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, 2005, etc.) survey, which is hardly a new strategy. Indeed, the author says little that hasn’t been said before, but she packs a trove of ideological assumptions into nearly every page. For one thing, while “Indian” isn’t bad, since “[i]ndigenous individuals and peoples in North America on the whole do not consider ‘Indian’ a slur,” “American” is due to the fact that it’s “blatantly imperialistic.” Just so, indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by a “colonialist settler-state” (the very language broadly applied to Israelis vis-à-vis the Palestinians today) and then “displaced to fragmented reservations and economically decimated”—after, that is, having been forced to live in “concentration camps.” Were he around today, Vine Deloria Jr., the always-indignant champion of bias-puncturing in defense of native history, would disavow such tidily packaged, ready-made, reflexive language. As it is, the readers who are likely to come to this book—undergraduates, mostly, in survey courses—probably won’t question Dunbar-Ortiz’s inaccurate assertion that the military phrase “in country” derives from the military phrase “Indian country” or her insistence that all Spanish people in the New World were “gold-obsessed.” Furthermore, most readers won’t likely know that some Ancestral Pueblo (for whom Dunbar-Ortiz uses the long-abandoned term “Anasazi”) sites show evidence of cannibalism and torture, which in turn points to the inconvenient fact that North America wasn’t entirely an Eden before the arrival of Europe.

A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8070-0040-3

Page Count: 296

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

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