Friday, January 05, 2007

Larson, Rosengarten, and Ray

Eric Larson's nonfictional Thunderstruck follows a strategy the author used to stunning effect in The Devil in the White City: the juxtaposition of two parallel story lines that initially seem to relate only tangentially but begin to complement and intersect with one another. In this case, one of Larson's accounts involves Marconi's tireless work on wireless communication, much of which took place in London, where he thought he had a better chance to have his work recognized. The other story line follows the career and relationships of Hawley Harvey Crippen, an American homeopathic doctor who made some money selling patent medicines and married a would-be opera singer with marginal talent. Living in London, the couple seemed happily married for a while, but the relationship ended in murder, a crime solved aboard a U.S.-bound ship with the aid of Marconi's wireless radio. Marconi's doggedly worked to perfect a technology that he had no real assurance could ever work. He proceeded largely by intuition, a sense that wireless communication over long distances was possible. His faith in this, his persistence, and his ability to develop it into a lucrative business, were almost superhuman. This story I find more engaging than that of the ill-fated Crippen.

After finishing Larson's book, I started in on All God's Dangers, a life story narrated by "Nate Shaw" (a pseudonym for Ned Cobb) transcribed by Theodore Rosengarten. Coincidentally, Cobb's life unfolds at the same time as the events in Thunderstruck. Cobb was born in 1885 and was interviewed in 1969. His powers of recall and the intensity of his narrative are amazing, especially for a man of 84. He grew up in Tallapoosa County, Alabama, not far from my hometown of Auburn. Although the locations in the book are fictionalized, I was able to identify many of the actual places by studying a map. He lived near the miniscule town with the actual name of Notasulga, only 20 miles or so from Auburn.

The third nonfiction book on my holiday reading list was Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which I reread with pleasure in anticipation of Ray's visit to our campus later in the spring. I'll use this book as a text in my English Composition course. As with Larson's book, there are two story lines here. The first is an account of her life up through college, her upbringing in the town of Baxley, Georgia with parents who operated a car junkyard. The second is the awakening of her interest in nature, especially the charm of the longleaf pine forests that once dominated Georgia and the surrounding states but were decimated, overcut for lumber and turpentine. Her campaign is to save and expand these forests, which in turn means saving the entire ecosystem that they support.

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