This post is the second in a series of 3. The focus looks at the significance of setting. While time and place is important in most novels and many non-fiction works, setting is almost a character in three books I recently finished. The first post examines a novel of historical fiction: The Given Day by Dennis LeHane, and part 2 reviews The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, while part 3 looks at Neverland by Neil Gaiman
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
When studying reading comprehension, I learned that to understand written text, readers must be able to determine what is important. This is especially pertinent when reading non-fiction. Sometimes authors weave interesting details into events, descriptions, or explanations that distract us from the main point. This minutia is often called “seductive details.”
When I first heard of The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, I was curious as to how and why the author wed the journey of building the World’s Colombian Exposition (a.k.a. the Chicago’s World’s Fair) to the journey of a mass killer, the likes of Herman Webster Mudgett (a.k.a. Dr. H.H. Holmes.) As I read, I started thinking Dr. Holmes’ story functions as THE seductive detail that fills nearly 1/2 of the pages and boosts the book’s sales. Why? Because I just didn’t see a link strong enough to bring the 2 events together through more than coincidence.
While both stories have been separately told before, I don’t know if any volumes reached “best seller” status as Devil has. Simply put, Larson writes that his book explores good and evil and the stage that brought the two extremes together: Chicago, 1893.The question that lingered in my mind, however, was HOW the Colombian Exposition brought the architect of the World’s Fair and the architect of murder together. Rather than reading to find out how Holmes pulled off his murders or how he would be found out, I turned pages to find an answer to THAT question. I honestly thought there would be a stronger link than time and place. Being the questioning reader that I am, I wondered …
- Would Holmes use the exposition to lure victims to Chicago?
- Would the bad doctor meet potential victims at the fair?
- Would he stash bodies on the construction site or in the “white and shining” buildings, thus turning them into sepulchers?
- Would Holmes murder victims at the exposition?
- Would Chicago detectives finally catch up to the villain as he stepped off the fair’s GINORMOUS Ferris wheel?
The answers are – once, sort of; no; no; no; and no. These were the connections between the two people/events:
- Holmes did invite the sister of one victim, Minnie, to come to Chicago to visit her sister AND the fair! The sister Nannie also met her demise at Holmes’ hands, and that incident is the only indication that he indirectly used the exposition to bring a young woman to his lair.
- Holmes lived near Jackson Park during the building and duration of the Chicago World’s Fair.
- As Holmes planned and constructed his dingy, dark building, Daniel Burnham, the world’s fair architect, struggled through the planning and construction of “the white city.” It seems, however, that the author’s comparison is subtly implied rather than explicitly touted. Interesting.
- Larson does write that the doctor and his legal wife and some of his victims rode their bicycles near Jackson Park during the construction of the fair.
- Holmes also treated Minnie and Nannie to a day at the fair before disposing of them both that night – back at his own place.
I am not saying the book is not well-written; it is an excellent piece of non-fiction that enthralled me. Devil is a national book award-winner, for heaven’s sake. But I just find the connection of the two historical incidents is without correlation or causation; whatever commonality there is is coincidental. To a degree, it’s like saying Tiger Woods’ marital problems and President Obama’s health-care reform struggle are connected: The Tiger in ObamaCare.
I did learn so many interesting tidbits about the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition – all seductive details in and of themselves:
- Chicago, considered the western hog-butcher, went all out to win the honor over their nemesis New York City.
- The White City, its nickname because buildings were all painted white to save time and money, inspired the vision of the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz.
- The Ferris wheel – first ever built – was America’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, centerpiece of the World Fair hosted by Paris.
- Walt Disney’s father worked on the fair and talked often of that experience. Devil’s author speculates those stories influenced his son’s vision of the theme park called Disneyland.
- The fair’s layout and the buildings’ classical architectural model long influenced city planning and the design of important business and government buildings. I recently learned that our very own capitol was influenced by Burnham’s White City.
By the way, if you are wondering how I manage to read so many books, please don’t be impressed. As much as I love reading, I have become a serious audio-book addict. I still read, but because I write so much more now, I don’t finish as many books as I used to. That’s why I love listening to books on CDs. AND because I live out here in the western desert, I drive A LOT, so these authors keep me company – BIG TIME.