The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

My friend Allison posted about this book back in April and I had put it on my TBR pile. Then I found out that it is one of Beth’s favorite books! Well we got to read it for November’s bookclub! I was so looking forward to going, but as it turns out I planned way to much for that week and ended up doing homework until 11 PM that night instead of enjoying yummy food and interesting discussion…oh, and I hadn’t finished the book yet. As has been the case lately, I finished the book about a week after the discussion, but hey, at least I was close! I definitely enjoyed this book, but I must say that I think I keep growing to like it more as I’ve talked with people about it. I have used this book and The Zookeeper’s Wife as examples in my current history class. They were both done extraordinarily well. These are both non-fiction books and essentially historical books, yet they really read like a story. I think this is the part of doing history that truly makes it an art. There are a lot of parts of doing history that are rather scientific and methodical, but being able to share history with others in a way that is interesting and still accurate takes a special gifting. The Devil in the White City was one of those artistic books for me.

The book bounces back and forther between the building of the fair and the important architects that were a part of that and the serial killer H.H. Holmes. Honestly, there were times when the architecture part was a little dull for me, but it was never so in depth that it was over my head. Also, the writing about the fair was fascinating – I didn’t know how many things made their debut at the fair! The evil and plotting of Holmes certainly make sit feel like you are reading fiction, sadly it was all true.

Often when writing history, historians take on the job of filling in the gaps of the story for the reader. I love that in both of these books the quotes and thoughts came from primary sources (I know Diane Ackerman stated that in her preface for the Zoopker’s Wife). I thought Larson did a fine job of this too. In his notes he pointed out that in the book he describes two different murder scenes even though there is no evidence to let us know what actually happened there. He stated, “For the two muder scenes I document my reasoning and my approach and cite the facts upon which I relied. The citations that follow consitutue a map. Anyone retracing my steps ougtht to reach the same conclusions as I.” (pg. 396)  This is clearly the nerdy historian in me, but I thought this was an inspiring process!

This was definitely a great book. Now, it’s about a real live serial killer, so that is a bit grusome but the telling of the story is not – Larson mostly hints at the evil without going into too much detail. As far as the building of the fair, I found that very interesting even though it is certainly not something I have been interested in before. Great book – no wonder it is a national bestseller!

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3 thoughts on “The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

  1. I am so happy you liked it! I confess that after I listened to the book on CD, I went out and bought it. I have not gotten to that strata of books in my reading pile yet, but there it sits looking at me, waiting for me to revisit the World’s Fair. The Zookeeper’s Wife has also been on my reading list for some time, and I hope to tackle it over Christmas.

    • I actually think I liked the Zookeeper’s Wife more – maybe because she was a woman or maybe I connected more with the writing, but they were both excellent!

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