Growing up almost right on top of the New Madrid Fault, earthquakes were always a fear tucked into the back of peoples’ minds. Even though the fault is overdue for a massive quake, fears like tornados and flooding were always more imminent problems. Now that I’ve read The Great Quake, part of me wants to immediately start creating an emergency plan for that next big earthquake. The other part of me wants to hide my head in the sand and pray that that quake doesn’t happen while I’m around, because if it’s anything as devastating as the Good Friday earthquake in Alaska, I’m done for.
I am a big fan of nonfiction books written as narrative nonfiction. Books written this way read almost like fiction, except it’s true. Facts and theories and data are presented in such a way that you never feel like you’re getting a bunch of boring information dumped on you, and there’s a flow to the narrative that isn’t found in a lot of nonfiction. Erik Larson is a master of this form of writing, and in fact, The Great Quake reminds me a lot of Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, both in its execution and in its ability to introduce me to life- and world-changing natural disasters that I’d never heard about.
The Great Quake focuses on the Good Friday earthquake that struck south-central Alaska on, as its name would suggest, Good Friday in 1964. It remains to this day the most powerful earthquake to hit North America and the second most powerful earthquake ever, reaching a 9.2 on the Richter scale and lasting a little more than four and a half minutes. But the story doesn’t start with the earthquake; it actually starts in the days immediately after, when geologists such as George Plafker were called in to survey the damage, giving us an immediate feel of the massive scale of the earthquake and the damage it caused. There’s immediately a sense of dread and loss and sorrow that glues you to the page and forces you to keep reading. How could something like this happen? How did no one see this quake coming? Why was the destruction and the loss of life so different between the towns? And what are the chances of this happening again?
Like Larson, Henry Fountain begins the first chapter with a jump back to before the quake and introduces us to the towns and the people directly affected by the disaster. A teacher, fishermen, children, native Alaskans–Fountain includes stories of a variety of people and towns to connect us with the story and make us care about the outcome of the quake. It’s one thing to consider the death and destruction from a scholarly standpoint, but it’s something else all together to read the stories of the people who managed to survive only to lose everything. I loved getting the history of towns such as Chenega and Valdez and learning about how the unique geography and the entire nature of Alaska contributed to the development of these places and others just like them.
There’s also a lot of background regarding the study of geology and how that has changed over the years thanks in part to people like George Plafker who put their boots on the ground to get a firsthand look at the earth and how it changed over the millennia. The data collected by geologists from the Good Friday earthquake as well as other major quakes have greatly contributed to humanity’s knowledge of earthquakes, and although there’s still a lot to learn, we now have a better grasp on what causes earthquakes and where they’re most likely to occur. In the whole book, the section on plate tectonics and continental drift and general geology was the only part that felt a bit dry, but the theories and data are really necessary for understanding the Alaska earthquake as well as all the tsunamis it spawned. And frankly, even this somewhat-boring section is more interesting than a lot of other nonfiction books I’ve read, so I wasn’t too annoyed with it.
Overall, The Great Quake is a fascinating and tragic read. There’s a lot of science, but it’s interspersed with stories of people and places who were forever changed by the Good Friday earthquake, and it all fits together to create a complex and interesting story. Fountain does a fantastic job of showing both the humanity of the situation and the scientific revelations that the earthquake imparted. The Great Quake will break your heart, but it will also teach you a lot; I recommend this book to any lover of non-fiction as well as to anyone looking for a fascinating story of courage and determination in the aftermath of terrible tragedy.
Thanks to Penguin’s First to Read for the advance copy of this book.