Friday, April 08, 2005

The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

The rush on 100-year anniversary books on the 1906 earthquake is officially on. Last year, fiction writer James Dalessandro came out with 1906, a novel with both real and fictional characters. I found it a peculiar book, as he wrote descriptively about the earthquake and fire and used historical figures to illustrate the events of those days. But then he fictionalized some other historical figures – like the notorious political boss Abe Ruef – and gave them new names and actions.

Thursday's San Francisco Chronicle had a big story on Philip Fradkin’s new book, The Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906. I am in the middle of reading this book, so I can’t offer any deep analysis at this point. But Fradkin shows the breakdown of civil authority, the brief rise of the Committee of 50, a powerful group of men who illegally took charge of the recovery, and the racial and social prejudices that prevailed.

I’ve read a slew of books about the earthquake, in part because I am a native San Franciscan and in part because the people I am writing about, Isaias Hellman and his son, played major roles in the rebuilding of the city. (The elder Hellman helped reopen the banks after the disaster and the younger served on the controversial Committee) My favorite book on the topic is still The Earth Shook, The Sky Burned by William Bronson. Then comes Disaster! The Great San Francisco Fire and Earthquake of 1906 by Dan Kurzman, a former Washington Post reporter. It’s a riveting account of the disasters and when I read it a few years ago I couldn’t put it down.

Disasters definitely translate into best-selling books. Publishers have already announced the release of two books on the Dec. 25 tsunami, one by Erich Krauss who was living in Thailand at the time of the epic tidal wave and a young adult book by Richard Lewis, a relief worker. In San Francisco, two well-regarded authors are also writing about the 1906 earthquake: Dennis Smith, the New York City fire chief who wrote about the Twin Towers and Simon Winchester, the British historian who wrote Krakatoa, the Day the Earth Exploded: August 27, 1883. The Chronicle will be also coming out with a book. It's a crowded field, a challenge that Winchester acknowledges:

"It's probably the most difficult book that I've ever done, in that it's telling a story that been told 10,000 times before," Winchester told the San Jose Metro.

"Somehow, I've got to do it better than it's ever been done. I think the 100th anniversary deserves a really good book. And to write that really good book, to get it all in, getting it all right and putting in its proper context, is a formidable task."

In the Chronicle, Fradkin bemoans the insignificance of history. “We have very short memories in California and history is almost a nonexistent word,” he said.

He touches on this subject again in his acknowledgements:

“Unfortunately, history is not a commodity that is valued greatly in this state. It may be someday, and it is for that time we toil.”

You can catch Fradkin Thursday, April 21 at the Mechanics Institute.

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