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A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906    by Simon Winchester order for
Crack in the Edge of the World
by Simon Winchester
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2005 (2005)
Hardcover, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The author of The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa brings us a dissertation on geology and plate tectonics that loosely centers on the Great San Francisco Earthquake of April 18, 1906, 'the first internationally recognized disaster' of the atomic age. As always, Winchester gives readers the big picture, taking perspectives across space and time, and including fascinating background information on historical and social contexts of earthquake locations. Black and white illustrations and photos, e.g. of plates and fault lines and of quake damage, help to make the author's points.

The myriad of topics that Winchester explores on his reader's behalf include the development of the science of plate tectonics and of space travel; the birth of the San Andreas Fault and a depth study of the fault begun in 2002; the new science of paleoseismology; the causes (and danger) of unpredictable intraplate earthquakes; and the types and behaviors of earthquake waves. He covers the history of California and of San Francisco in some depth, calling the city in 1906 'a big, dirty, brawling, vulgar, smoggy, sooty, and corrupt town'. He describes the context for the 1906 quake in detail, including a mention of famous people in town at the time - such as Enrico Caruso, John Barrymore, and a four-year-old Ansel Adams - and he shows us the 'spectacular, horrifying, unforgettable' onset of the disaster with vivid imagery. He quotes witness accounts (from individuals on land and at sea), including one of a stampede of long-horned cattle unloaded from a ship. He tells us that the three day fire that was a side effect of the disaster compounded the damage 'by what would seem a thousandfold.'

Winchester describes recovery and rebuilding efforts, including the setup of encampments for the 'scores of thousands' of people left homeless. He describes attempts to spin the cause and magnitude of the disaster for economic reasons. He discusses related events including a Pentecostalist Revival (the quake was taken as a sign from God), and an influx of 'paper people' from China. His use of language is engaging, as when he speaks of 'seismic orneriness', tells us 'The planet very briefly shrugged', or compares movements on the earth's surface to 'motions of the creamy scum that forms on the surface of a soup that is boiling merrily away underneath it.' He covers human reaction to catastrophe, telling us of priests blaming and hanging heretics after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and contrasting Santa Barbara villagers' reaction to an 1857 earthquake (falling on their knees) with the modern day 'need to turn on CNN'. He compares the set of earthquakes of 1906, 'one of the very worst years of all time', with the disasters of 2004.

Of San Francisco's future, Simon Winchester says 'There will be a quake, it will be considerable, it will be somewhere in the vicinity of San Francisco ... and it will take place, most probably, before 2032.' A Crack in the Edge of the World is meticulously researched. Read it for insights into the planet's structure, human history, and geological catastrophes, and for a reminder of 'the fragility of humankind, the evanescent nature of even our most impressive achievements.'

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