Rebecca Solnit, author of ten books and recipient of both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Mark Lynton History Prize for River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003), has written on such diverse topics as art exhibitions, photography, the history of walking, and the spread of urbanism. In A Paradise Built in Hell, a collection of essays most of which she has previously published in a variety of magazines or as chapters in books, she takes up and expands upon many of the arguments she considered in her ninth book, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (2007). The essays focus on the occurrences of aftermaths of five major North American disasters: the San Francisco earthquake of 1906; the Halifax, Nova Scotia, explosion of 1917; the Mexico City earthquake of 1985; the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001; and the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Solnit does not limit herself to discussing only these disasters: She also gives brief consideration to such other disasters as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed more than seventy thousand people, three successive cyclones that hit Madagascar, the London blitz during World War II, Nicaragua’s earthquake of 1972, and Argentina’s economic meltdown in 2001. She also provides cogent asides in discussing the major disasters on which she focuses. For example, a section on William James, a visiting professor at Stanford University during the 1906 earthquake, describes him venturing into the heart of the destruction with a Stanford colleague shortly after the disaster in order to search for the colleague’s sister. Solnit reproduces James’s firsthand accounts of the earthquake, found in letters he wrote to friends and relatives in the East.
One of the appealing vignettes in A Paradise Built in Hell is that of fifteen-year-old Hugh Kwong Liang, a boy transplanted from China to San Francisco in the early twentieth century. Living on his own there, he suffered from the anti-Chinese sentiments of the period. Bereft of family, he thought his only option following the earthquake was suicide. He rushed to the waterfront, planning to drown himself. There, however, he was taken aboard a ship by a sympathetic Caucasian and taken to Napa, where he had distant relatives. Liang thrived in his new surroundings, suggesting that disasters can shape lives in positive ways.
Similarly, following Halifax in the early twentieth century was marked by divisions of religion, race, and class. Following the explosion there, however, people in the destroyed city reached out to help survivors without considering such divisions. The unbending class structures of Halifax society, in the face of disaster, becameat least brieflyintegrated.
Solnit, who lives in San Francisco, has no academic affiliation but is what one might term a “public intellectual.” She is extremely well read and her research is exhaustive and accurate. Politically, she identifies as a liberal, but many of her arguments are compatible with those of political conservatives because they call for less governmental interference in the lives of Americans. The examples in A Paradise Built in Hell point quite consistently to government ineptitude in the face of disaster. In discussing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, she writes with a bitter vitriol aimed at the George W. Bush administration: Thanks to Katrina, the Bush administration lost its mandate of heaven. Perhaps the president and his team should have lost it in the chaos of September 11, 2001, but they cannily framed the situation in a way that led to a surge in patriotic fear and deference and defined the administration as decisive, powerful, unquestionableuntil the summer of 2005.
Solnit, whose writing is dependably stimulating, examines the political and economic implications of the bureaucratic response to disasters. In discussing the San Francisco earthquake, she notes that those with political power preferred to refer to the disaster as a great fire...
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