Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Johnstown Flood - David McCullough

Summary:  The stunning story of one of America's great disasters, a preventable tragedy of Gilded Age America, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation's burgeoning industrial prosperity. In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Despite repeated warnings of possible danger, nothing was done about the dam. Then came May 31, 1889, when the dam burst, sending a wall of water thundering down the mountain, smashing through Johnstown, and killing more than 2,000 people. It was a tragedy that became a national scandal. 

Graced by David McCullough's remarkable gift for writing richly textured, sympathetic social history, The Johnstown Flood is an absorbing, classic portrait of life in nineteenth-century America, of overweening confidence, of energy, and of tragedy. It also offers a powerful historical lesson for our century and all times: the danger of assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibly. (Summary and cover from

My Review: I read David McCullough's book, John Adams, a few years ago for a book club. I was so impressed with his writing and research and knowledge of the topic that I really wanted to read another of his. I wasn’t aware of his book The Johnstown Flood until I heard a podcast about the flood, so when the podcast referenced it, I was really excited.

 Reading McCullough is an intense experience and The Johnstown Flood is no exception. The book starts out slowly, but McCullough uses those pages to give an incredible back-story, covering everything from the people involved, to the time period, to the political situation, to the history of the town. He doesn't beat around the bush. I admit that it was a little slow-going at first, but by the time things start to pick up, you definitely know all details surrounding the flood. As soon as it starts raining, however, and the imminent danger of the flood becomes apparent, the book gets really exciting. Because here's the great thing: by the time the action really gets going, you know the people, you know the details, you know the history and the politics, and so when the flood actually does happen, you're invested. And that's perhaps the best thing about McCullough—not only does he give you every minute detail, but he writes them in such a way that it’s understandable and thorough and you can't help but understand what it would have been like to experience the Johnstown flood. Even after hearing the podcast, I had no idea of the extent of the flood, let alone the key players who would go on to change American history; knowing those things is the difference between simply having heard about the Johnstown flood to actually knowing about the Johnstown flood.

McCullough, as a writer, is extremely proficient. His language is beautiful and clear without the unnecessary baggage of many other academic writers. Although I set off knowing full well what it would be like to read a another McCullough book, I was impressed again at how easily he incorporates details and facts into his writing. It makes history come alive, and that’s what’s great about this book. I knew what the Johnstown Flood was. I was familiar with McCullough's writing and style, but I was pleasantly surprised again to experience an author who is a master at his craft.

My Rating:  4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: As with many true disaster writings, there is tragedy and loss of life in sometimes horrific ways. This book is not unnecessarily graphic and treats those situations with respect.

1 comment:

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

I read this and loved it. I added it to our "staff picks" section at "my" library.


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