Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Better Than Fiction


Right now I’m reading The Devil in the White City, which talks about the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 (a.k.a. the Chicago World’s Fair) and two men in particular who were involved in its history: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect who designed the fair, and Dr. H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who, shall we say, used the fair to his advantage. I am only through Part One of the book, but it’s already one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read.

The most frequent comment about the book is that although it is a nonfiction book, it reads more like great fiction, and I have to say that I agree. This is not the first nonfiction book in my experience to borrow from fiction. Some other notable nonfiction reads include In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong, The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, and, of course, the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Each of these books reads more like a story rather than an analysis of events. (I’d take a story over a textbook any day.)

And, if these books prove anything, it’s that you don’t necessarily have to resort to the historical fiction genre to make real-life events into a riveting story. But as a side note, a good historical fiction book about the Chicago World’s Fair is Fair Weather by Richard Peck. You could say that this book was my precursor to The Devil in the White City since it increased my interest in this time period.

I would argue that every good nonfiction book needs some element of fiction, and by “fiction” I don’t mean that it should be untrue, but rather that its storytelling technique should be similar.

In my opinion, The Devil in the White City reads like fiction because Erik Larson, the book’s author, managed to integrate good versus evil into his book. You have the architect, Burnham, who is involved in one of the most exciting and optimistic undertakings in American history up to that point (maybe ever), and whose main goal was to showcase the best facets of American culture. And then you have Dr. Holmes, whose crimes were compared to Jack the Ripper. The best and the worst. Although their stories are told separately, what unites them is the event itself. As I read, I find myself wondering if the fair will succeed in the same way that I worry if the hero is going triumph over the villain. I know what’s going to happen, since I’m familiar with the history, but as in fiction, where I may know that there will be a happily ever after (or not), the suspense is still there.

As further proof, here is a quote from the author’s note at the beginning of the book:

“Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.”

But Burnham and Holmes aren’t fictional at all, and that is the most fascinating part of their story.