Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review

The blue posts in the above photographs mark where the San Andreas Fault crosses the the southern portion of the Point Reyes Peninsula(about 50 miles north of the epicenter of 1906 earthquake).

I spent part of my childhood in the San Frncisco Bay Area, and I have been fascinated with th 1906 earthquake for as long as I can remember. As a boy I had a calendar commemorating the San Francisco earthquake and fire. I would often open the calendar and stare at the photographs show ing the damage the earthquake caused.

This week I read a comprehensive history of the earthquake and fire. San Francisco is Burning is Dennis Smith's narrative history of the 1906 disaster. Dennis Smith is a retired New York City firefighter and the author of Report From Engine Co. 82(the best book about firefighting ever written).

Since Smith is a retired firefighting, there is a lot of focus on the efforts to fight the fires. However the theme of the book might be how the disaster transformed the city of San Francisco. The disaster brought about the fall of the corrupt forces that ran the city and led to a rise of a government based on progressive reforms.

Smith's tale does have its heros and they are first and foremost the San Francisco Fire Department and a group of naval sailors led Lt. Commander Frederick Freeman and Ensign John Pond. The villains of the disaster are the corrupt mayor Eugene Schmitz and the political boss Abraham Ruef. Brigadier General Frederick Funston and the army come off not as villains but as people in over their heads whose mistakes add to the disaster. One of the devices Smith uses to tell the story is focus on a small group people and incidents as way to draw a wider picture of the devastation.

Smith's real gift has always been the ability to combine an understanding of the technical details of a fire or a disaster with an insight into the human dimension of people caught up in such a cataclysm. This gift makes for an engrossing an informative read.

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