The Devil in the White City-Part I

My choice of this book for summer reading was actually a coincidence. I found it in the back seat of my car one day and later found out it was my brother’s copy. What intrigued me was its title and my brother’s positive thoughts and description of the book. I picked it up for recreational reading at the beginning of the summer, only to find it was a choice on our required reading list.

In Part I of The Devil in the White City (DIWC), author Larson immediately sets out the two distinct and compelling story lines, told from each real-life character’s presumed point of view. Even though the text is complex with some distinct vocabulary at times, I found it an enjoyable read. The setting of the mid to late 19th century Chicago and all of its sounds, smells, and people really made me feel as if I could imagine being there at that very time and place, and pictured myself maybe even being one of those young women just starting out on my own in the city.

As the story goes, in early 1890, architects Daniel Burnham and John Root have been commissioned to be in charge of planning and constructing the entirety of the Chicago World’s Fair. I was struck by the endearing quality of the characters, and how the author seems to have an intimate sense of who each one is as he is writing. Burnham was detailed to be a proud man, extremely driven, and purposed, although it seemed to be to a fault. John Root equally driven, appreciated the true architectural side of projects. Root was the artistic one of the pair, really dealing with less of the business side of things.

The concurrent character of Dr. H.H. (“Henry”) Holmes was much like Daniel Burnham. He was tenacious and took aim at his “prize” no matter the cost to get there. What Burnham lacked in irresistible charm and charisma, Holmes made up in great strides. Dr. Holmes was able to get whatever he wanted, and seemed to avoid unpleasant circumstances without suspicion. The only difference between the two men was that Holmes only sought blood and his intentions were for evil. He thought that Chicago was a perfect place to disappear and for others to disappear without a trace.

During this time in history, I really got a sense that the world was changing. Industry was booming, cities in America were expanding and competing, and countries were vying for the most attractive to both tourists and business resources alike. Larson emphasized, “Everywhere one looked the boundary between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading” (Larson, 12). Socially and culturally, people were changing. Divorce was becoming more prevalent, people were more promiscuous. It made me stop and wonder why the fabric of society was changing. My thinking is that people wanted something more: money, love, power, fame, you name it. Their curiosity for new experiences and discoveries drove them over the edge and beyond.

Finally, I also enjoyed reading the Author’s Notes, which explained the overall message of the book: “…this book is about the evanescence* of life, and why some men choose to fill their allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow” (Larson, xi). I’m excited to see how Larson will further incorporate this message into the book and what will become of our fated characters.

*evanescence- soon passing out of sight, memory, or existence