In 1815, a volcanic eruption caused a year of devastation. Here is a vivid, disquieting collage of prose pieces that swirl around that one cataclysmic event.
In this slim book, poet, essayist, and children’s book author Lebowitz (Cottonopolis, 2013, etc.) draws on fairy tales and parables; excerpts from memoirs, poetry, and the King James Bible; Norse and Greek myths; and assorted historical and archaeological sources. On April 10, 1815, in Indonesia, Mount Tambora spewed lava and ash into the atmosphere, instantly killing nearly 12,000 people and countless animals. Cows and horses were swept into the sky; pumice lay a foot thick; birds fell dead; and there was darkness for days. Throughout the world, what should have been summer never arrived. In July, rivers were iced over; rain fell unabated; harvests failed. In the months that followed, 90,000 Indonesians starved. Crops were covered in frost, and fungi poisoned wheat. The next year, 1817, was “The Year of the Beggar.” Not surprisingly, some saw the eruption as God’s punishment: “when the weather turned or disaster struck,” Lebowitz observes, “there were always voices explaining why this was so, why the rain was falling now, why the snow was brown, whose side God was on.” Some prayed, and others atoned, but still summer never came. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and their children were in Switzerland during the wettest summer on record. Lake Geneva flooded and inundated the town of Vevey, where Shelley created her tale of a monster who runs from his creator into an icy realm. Lebowitz juxtaposes the volcanic eruption with another violent event that occurred a century later: World War I, “the turning-point in the history of the earth,” according to British writer Wyndham Lewis, in which men and horses drowned in mud, just as they had in the post-volcanic year.
Disparate musings cohere into a lyrical meditation on violence, disaster, and humanity’s yearning for solace.