Perhaps you missed The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. I know that I did. It was published in 2003 and seemed to me to be of no great interest despite the fact that it was a finalist for the National Book Award. After all what could possibly be so interesting about the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893? A friend read it recently and gave it a very positive review. I picked it up with hesitation and was hooked by the author’s note on the first page. His note briefly describes the two main characters in the book – a well known architect who built the Flatiron building in New York City and the first recorded American serial killer.
The actions of these two unlikely players intertwine in the setting of the World’s Fair. Chicago undertook to create a fair to outshine the Paris fair of 1889. Daniel Burnham did so with less than three years to create a far larger exposition. Dr. H.H. Holmes settled in Chicago and seized the opportunity to build a hotel to lure young, unaccompanied women to book rooms close to the fair.
In the process of reading the interwoven stories many significant figures in America’s history appear. Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Law Olmsted, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jane Addams, Buffalo Bill Cody and many others played active roles in the fair. Other events touched upon the fair and the players involved in it. The sinking of the Titanic, the financial depression of 1893, and the assassination of a beloved Chicago mayor all have their roles in the story.
For most of the book Larson alternates chapters between Burnham and Holmes. He notes that both of these men were “unusually adept at their chosen skills.” He concludes his brief introductory note by saying his story is “of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil…” and his book certainly proves his point.
Marie King teaches 5th through 8th grade literature at Mizzentop Day School. A resident of Pawling for twelve years, she has also led book groups for adults, children, and parents and children at the Pawling Library.