walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Dark Tide_, Stephen Puleo

Subtitled: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

Not that there was ever another one, mind you. Published 2003 by Beacon Press, which is "a department of the Unitarian Universalist Association", according to wikipedia. I got this from the library in Mayberry (<-- not its real name), where I go to the adult book group as often as I can. The meeting is tomorrow night and I may update this review after to reflect how that discussion affects my thinking.

It's a good, readable book with a strong moral core (wondering why a religious/academic press would publish this? Wonder no more). Puleo uses a chronological structure to organize the book, so there's a bunch of could-be-irritatingly-foreshadowy bits before the disaster, then the disaster, then the recovery of victims/bodies, and finally the long, drawn out sort-of court case(s) and ultimately the settlement, because USIA decided a jury trial was not going to improve things for them. Puleo (distinctly unlike Larson in _Devil in the White City_) manages to make the pre-disaster bits NOT annoying, mostly by just telling you what this person will be doing later in the story (rather than by not telling you Ferris' name while describing in detail the Big Wheel, say).

Puleo has some specific themes and points to make; a reader accustomed to subtlety might find some of what he does a bit heavy handed. But he's a journalist with a master's in history and he is competent at both tasks which is always amazing. He particularly develops the theme of the place of Italians in American society at the time (the Galleanists, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Wall Street bombing, earlier mail bombs, etc.), and the predominately Italian neighborhood surrounding the unsafe tank. He describes in some detail the intersection of USIA wanting to build a tank near rail and the water, and needing to find a neighborhood that couldn't slow them down through NIMBY (<-- anachronistic terminology is mine, not Puleo's), and why a Boston Italian neighborhood worked well for that purpose.

This is really cool. It's easy enough to _observe_ what USIA did; it's trickier to tell the _story_ of why that neighborhood was in no way able to do anything about a dangerous industrial project in its midst.

Puleo also does a good job of explaining why molasses (and why not molasses later), and the implications of molasses trade throughout Boston's history (he doesn't expend a ton of paragraphs on it; he is succinct). It is not easy to explain changes in technology that have implications for commodity inputs.

Really, it's kind of hard to imagine how any reasonable person could criticize this book. It's seems clear there is an analogy to be found between these events and our recent history, but Puleo doesn't go after it explicitly. This isn't an academic work in tone or in sourcing, but history doesn't have to be academic to be well done and valuable. In some ways, it is weirdly like a Law & Order episode, where the first half is the crime and the criminals being tracked down and apprehended, and the second half is in court. Like Law & Order, it's not likely to be anyone's Favorite Favorite of All Time -- but a lot of us are happy to get more just like it whenever possible.

Absolutely worth your time and money. I think that's the most pleasant learning experience I've had in years (the descriptions of the disaster itself are somewhat heartrending).

ETA: I have one of Puleo's other books, _A City So Grand_, that I picked up remaindered at Willow Books maybe a year ago. Perhaps I will read that next.

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