A CRACK IN THE EDGE OF THE WORLD by Simon Winchester

A CRACK IN THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906

KIRKUS REVIEW

From Chinatown street corners to outer space, an enlightening and edifying examination of the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake of April 1906 and how it shaped subsequent American history.

Winchester (Krakatoa, 2003, etc.) aims to explain the quake in the context of a planet largely indifferent to human existence. To do that, he drives cross-country the length of the North American Plate, which begins in Iceland, visiting the sites of past quakes (Charleston, 1886; New Madrid, Mo., 1811) and reminding readers that there will be others in those areas, likely with more devastating results because of higher population density. All of civilization is, in effect, surfing on a series of plates that still crash into one another billions of years after the planet formed. This makes the Gold Rush Era decision to build what was the West’s grandest metropolis all but a taunt to nature. The San Francisco earthquake and fire that followed killed as few as 600 and as many as 3,000 and shaped history in surprising ways. The master plan to rebuild the city in the spirit of Washington, D.C., went unrealized, but buildings were required to be fire- and tremor-resistant. After the disaster, “San Francisco’s crown began to slip” and Los Angeles would evermore be the West’s great city. Among those affected most by the quake were members of San Francisco’s Chinese community. Chinatown was leveled and immigration records burned, leaving city officials with no clear idea of “just who the people were.” Subsequent racist immigration reforms made it difficult for Chinese to enter the United States and had the unanticipated effect of ensuring that only the most clever and determined were allowed in. By a coincidence of timing, Winchester writes—allowing that it’s a bit of a stretch—the quake even galvanized the fledgling Pentecostalist movement, which would have a long-ranging political and religious impact.

Winchester is an engaging tour guide, and his tale a humbling one. Humankind exists, he concludes, by “the planet’s consent.”

Pub Date: Oct. 4th, 2005
ISBN: 0-06-057199-3
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2005




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