Saturday, April 1, 2017

Review: The Johnstown Flood

For me, each new novel begins not with a keystroke on my laptop but rather with a book, a web site, or even a movie. It begins with an effort to learn about a place and a time I have often never seen.

My current project is no different. When I set out to learn more about Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889, I went first to the definitive source on that place and time: The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough.

Like The Big Burn by Timothy Egan and Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson, which I read while preparing The Fire and September Sky, respectively, McCullough’s nonfiction work reads like a novel. Thorough, balanced, and fascinating, it guides readers through the deadliest flood in U.S. history and provides a poignant snapshot of western Pennsylvania during the height of the Gilded Age. Personal anecdotes share space with clear — sometimes cold — statistics.

When reading the book, I felt like I was a part of a growing community that thrived on steel and commerce but lived in constant fear that a poorly maintained earthen dam, just fourteen miles up the Little Conemaugh River, might someday fail and take that prosperity away.

Like Egan and Larson, McCullough does more than describe a historic disaster. He provides a veritable college course on an era. I would recommend The Johnstown Flood to any student of history or anyone who simply likes a good story. Rating: 5/5.