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Disaster! The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 

By Dan Kurzman (William Morrow & Co. , 2001, $25)

Wednesday, Sep 26 2001
It's always been true that time changes the meaning and worth of a book, and it's even clearer now. Nostradamus' opaque predictions are currently in vogue for those attempting to parse meaning out of meaninglessness. Dry tomes on the Taliban from university presses, which in other times would have languished on poli sci syllabi, are being consumed by a wide audience. Coffee-table books on the World Trade Center are getting cracked open and pondered. We'll take meaning anywhere we can get it, whether from the scribblings of a 16th-century Frenchman or from old photos of a world that used to be.

Dan Kurzman's Disaster!, a 300-page history of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and its aftermath, suddenly feels like a more substantial and relevant book. Published earlier this year, Kurzman's expert chronology of the quake focuses less on its civic, seismic, and financial effects and more on the small tales of heroism and humanism pervading those days of fear and panic: tenor Enrico Caruso fussing in his hotel room, Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini desperately trekking up the Peninsula as he panics over his accounts, and children raiding a Polk Street candy store before it was dynamited. In Kurzman's hands, these interlocking tales, building from anecdote to anecdote, used to read like a well-researched but melodramatic piece of storytelling. The strings swelled when couples and families reunited, and turned somber when the looters got shot; it was Arthur Hailey's Airport meets the Chronicle clip file.

But when read in these times, its imagery feels like the past talking to the present. Kurzman's narrative has an eerie, chilling resonance: ruined families, businesses in ashes, and foolish priests who called it all God's punishment for society's loose morals. Between the profiteering and the racism, the emergency workers covered in ash and the burned innocents in the hospitals, Kurzman's version of the story might now seem like too much. But in the way that makes history books such a comfort, we have the benefit of knowing the ending. The months after the quake -- during which an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 San Franciscans perished -- were filled with recollections of bravery and unity in the face of chaos, and Kurzman's melodrama is simple drama today. Kurzman quotes a survivor, Charles Page, writing to his son: "There was an exhilaration in the desperation of the moment. What it was I do not know but surely men forgot the past, seemed to overlook the present and to face only the future ... which would repair the disaster." In time, there'd even be room for a bit of gallows humor, reflected in a piece of doggerel by poet Charles K. Field that showed where the city's priorities lay:

If as some say, God spanked the town

For being overly frisky,

Why did He burn the churches down

And save Hotaling's Whiskey?

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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