|A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 |
by Simon Winchester
Geologically speaking, 1906 was a violent year: powerful, destructive earthquakes shook the ground from Taiwan to South America, while in Italy, Mount Vesuvius erupted. And in San Francisco, a large earthquake occurred just after five in the morning on April 18--and that was just the beginning. The quake caused a conflagration that raged for the next three days, destroying much of the American West's greatest city. The fire, along with water damage and other indirect acts, proved more destructive than the earthquake itself, but insurance companies tried hard to dispute this fact since few people carried earthquake insurance. It was also the world's first major natural disaster to have been extensively photographed and covered by the media, and as a result, it left "an indelible imprint on the mind of the entire nation."
Though the epicenter of this marvelously constructed book is San Francisco, Winchester covers much more than just the disaster. He discusses how this particular quake led to greater scientific study of quakes in an attempt to understand the movements of the earth. Trained at Oxford University as a geologist, Winchester is well qualified to discuss the subject, and he clearly explains plate tectonics theory (first introduced in 1968) and the creation of the San Andreas Fault, along with the geologic exploration of the American West in the late 19th century and the evolution of technology used to measure and predict earthquakes. He also covers the social and political shifts caused by the disaster, such as the way that Pentecostalists viewed the quake as "a message of divine approval" and used it to recruit new members into the church, and the rise in the local Chinese population. With many records destroyed in the fire, there was no way to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, and thus many more Chinese were granted citizenship than would have otherwise been. Filled with eyewitness accounts, vivid descriptions, crisp prose, and many delightful meanderings, A Crack in the Edge of the World is a thoroughly absorbing tale.