A Crack in the Edge of the World

When I picked up A Crack in the Edge of the World, I hesitated over including it in my science book challenge list, thinking it might be more of a sociological work, a survey of witness reports and survivors’ accounts. Silly me, it must have been too long since I read Simon Winchester, because I forgot he favors taking the long view toward the exploration of natural disasters. Much as he did in Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, he goes into great detail about the formation of the geologic features that will one day shake San Francisco to its core, starting (roughly) when the Earth coalesces out of molten space debris. Winchester’s story-telling is the literary equivalent of Jeffy’s trips from point A to point B in a Family Circus cartoon: it hops fences, loops through swing sets, and pets every dog along the way. Which is, for me, the great pleasure of Winchester’s books.

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire was a spectacularly well-documented disaster. Any author could winnow the archives and shake out a 400-page history, with myriad lenses to choose from for focus: the Chinese-American community’s experience, say, or the impact on the arts; an architectural view, a political view, a humanitarian view. I don’t know how many authors, given that wealth of material, would decide that the thing to do would be to start off of the other side of the world (Iceland, eastern border of the North American tectonic plate), drive across the US visiting other major fault lines (the New Madrid comes in for most of a chapter on its own), take us through various linguistic and historical asides (the definition and legal application of the term “chance-medley”; the activities of Enrico Caruso and John Barrymore on the morning of the quake; the unlikely and untimely death of botanist David Douglas; the author’s own connection to the Barringer family, owners of Barringer Crater) before finally zeroing in on the event that was, in many ways, the making of modern San Francisco. But that is the Winchester way: he wants to give his readers as complete a picture as possible, teasing out the widest possible web of connections, causes, and consequences. He would be such a fascinating person to be seated next to at dinner.

Winchester (or someone in his publishing house) also has an instinct for interesting jacket design. The dust cover of my copy looks like the picture above, and unfolds to reveal this:

All of which makes me tremendously excited that there is another Winchester book yet to be read on my shelves: The Map That Changed the World. It, too, is about a momentous event in geologic history, and has an intriguingly folded dust jacket. It has now been promoted to the Challenge Books shelf and will likely make an appearance here soon.

But first, a detour: a journey through the much-too-brief life of Marjory Fleming, a 19th-century Scottish child prodigy whom I am choosing to claim as a spiritual, if not actual, ancestor.

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