A Crack in the Edge of the World

by Simon Winchester
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A Crack in the Edge of the World

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1612

As indicated by its subtitle, A Crack in the Edge of the World is focused on the earthquake of 1906, which destroyed much of the young city of San Francisco. That earthquake is easily worthy of a book of this length (more than 450 pages), both for the magnitude of destruction and for the human drama that accompanied it. Indeed, there have been many books already published on the topic, including memoirs of survivors, clinical accounts of the seismic causes, more lurid semifictionalized accounts of suffering and heroism, collections of photographs, and more engineering studies of how different types of structures fared. (This book lists some of these books in an appendix of “suggestions for further reading.”)

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While this book uses the 1906 San Francisco earthquake as a focal point, its temporal and geographic scope is much broader, extending across millennia and continents. Indeed, the earthquake is not so much the reason for the book as it is the lens for looking at the sometimes-dry and always-esoteric science of plate tectonics, which concerns movements in the earth’s crust. Introduced in the 1960’s, the theory of plate tectonics, now widely accepted, explains earthquakes and other seismic events as being caused by the movement of continent-sized segments of the earth’s surface. These “plates” are in constant (albeit gradual) motion, riding on the earth’s mantle. The location where the edges of two plates meet is a fault line, along which slippage occurs and, occasionally, earthquakes.

There are obvious advantages to understanding the behavior of these plates, most important for the location and engineering of buildings and other structures. Clues that help to illuminate plate behavior are found in all manner of geological formations: mountain ranges, rivers, volcanoes, rock outcroppings, soils, and so forth. These point to past seismic events and may help in the prediction of future ones. Though there is general acceptance of the concept of enormous fragments of the earth’s crust slowly drifting on the sea of molten rock that is the earth’s mantle, the science of earthquake prediction is still in its infancy. For the time being, scientists are much better at explaining why and how an earthquake has occurred, than when or how it will occur.

The author, Simon Winchester, leads the reader on a journey across the North American plate, which encompasses not only North America but also part of the Atlantic Ocean, the western end of Eurasia, and Greenland. Winchester uses this trip, which he actually took, as a rough guide for a travelogue that goes on for about one hundred pages. At various points along the waysuch as Charleston, South Carolina, and Meers, MissouriWinchester describes not just the local geography but how that geography and infrastructure and society were shaped in part by geological forces over time. These are not dispassionate history lectures but engaging stories of people, places, and societies, laced with a healthy dose of trivia and vignettes about such things as how place names were conferred, how simple lives were affected by the insuperable forces of nature, and how Winchester’s car responded when the road inclined upward to pass over a mountain.

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The result is a story that is not quite a stream of consciousness but a far cry from a linear narrative. Winchester’s constant shifting of time, place, and focus are not disorienting, thanks to his comfortable grasp of storytelling. He is an engaging and skilled writer, effortlessly balancing his prose on the edge between authoritative explanation and entertaining description. In those rare cases in which he deems a detail too off-point for the flow of his story, Winchester employs a footnote. One seldom reads more than three or four pages without running into one of these. Overall, Winchester’s approach works as a way to connect the social, cultural, physical, temporal, and geographical facets of North America in a way that could not be achieved with a more traditional, linear text.

What of San Francisco and 1906? After a twenty-two-page prologue that introduces several individuals who would awake to the earthquake in the early morning of April 18, Winchester largely puts the event aside until the second half of the book, devoting the first half to discussing other places and eras and topics. Then, beginning in chapter 9, the book returns to San Francisco on the evening before the great earthquake. Equipped with the geology lessons and historical context from the preceding chapters, the reader is better able to appreciate the significance of the 1906 quake. One has learned how and why the city of San Francisco appeared where and when it did. One has a sense of the aspirations and mores of the society. One better understands the lurking, unpredictable, but inevitable danger that the San Andreas fault posed for the city. Afer providing background information in this way, Winchester, clearly relishing the suspense, describes the setting for the earthquake with a dramatic buildup of detail. He tells of the evening temperature, the sunset, the promise of spring in the air. He explains that the famous tenor Enrico Caruso was preparing to sing the role of Don Jose in Carmen, taking care to describe the Pacific Hotel, which shortly would fall victim to earthquake-triggered fire. Winchester describes the earliest wakers in the city, baking bread and brewing coffee. Then, finally, the individuals described in the prologue are back, experiencing “the savage interruption” that arose just minutes before dawn on April 18.

The chaos, confusion, and destruction are described in poignant detail. Then, after fewer than twenty pages, Winchester makes another detour to describe how the Chinese in 200 c.e. created an early version of a seismometer (or “earthquake weathercock”). After tracing the subsequent improvements to the point of the modern seismic device, the book returns (briefly) to the scene in San Francisco on April 18. These pages are illustrated with maps and photographs of the devastation. As Winchester notes, the San Francisco earthquake was “the world’s first major natural disaster to have been extensively photographed: It was the seismic equivalent of the Civil War.”

Winchester moves from describing the shaking of the earth and the toppling of buildings to the efforts to save lives and property. The earthquake itself lasted only about a minute, but the fires it spawned (through downed electrical cables and ruptured gas lines) lasted for three days. The injured had to be tended, and the dead had to be buried (or, in some cases, burned). Buildings had to be salvaged or, most often, razed and rebuilt. Perhaps especially interesting in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake are the efforts to restore civil order. Military troops from the Presidio were dispatched to cordon off dangerous areas and keep away onlookers. Orders were given to shoot looters on the spot. Liquor sales were banned, as were bare candles and other items and practices deemed dangerous. Additional U.S. soldiers came from Army bases in other states as far away as Virginia.

The large question that loomed as order was eventually restored was whether San Francisco could (or should) be rebuilt. One bemusing anecdote related by Winchester concerns the effort by San Francisco civic leaders to combat a potential perception that their city was earthquake-prone. Evidently, they attempted to expunge the word “earthquake” from official descriptions of the tragedy, substituting the word “fire.” Their discussions concerning whether or not to rebuild Chinatown are also illuminating. On a larger scale, decisions about reconstructing the city would determine the physical appearance and cultural image of San Francisco. Winchester describes how streets were planned, how the new city hall was designed, and how parks were laid out. For the most part, he describes these efforts as hasty. Winchester regrets that the unique opportunity to rebuild San Francisco as a grander, more beautiful, and more significant city was passed up, suggesting that San Francisco came to be eclipsed in many ways by the likes of Los Angeles. He makes a good case that much of what defines San Francisco today was decided in those first few years after the earthquake. Once again, it is the intersection of seismic events and societal development that is illuminated by the aftermath of the earthquake.

Looking forward, Winchester turns to the obvious question of whether San Francisco is destined for another great earthquake. He notes the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (centered a few dozen miles south of San Francisco) which, while causing damage to many buildings and bridges, came nowhere near ruining Bay Area cities, which presumably were safer thanks to rigorous building codes. It is popularly accepted that the Loma Prieta earthquake, though not as large as its 1906 predecessor (6.9 and 8.3 on the Richter scale, respectively), managed to relieve plate tectonic tension that, were it to build up over time, could make possible a much larger earthquake. Winchester, however, sees the Loma Prieta earthquake as a “worrisome” harbinger because the latter quake was not a result of a rupture along the San Andreas fault. Therefore, because of constant tectonic movement, the San Andreas fault has been building up tension (unrelieved by an earthquake) since 1906. According to Winchester, “this means that an unimaginably enormous amount of kinetic energy is currently stored in the rocks of the Bay Area; one day, and probably very soon, this energy will all be relieved, without warning.”

On that ominous note, Winchester finishes with an epilogue about his May, 2004, travels in Alaska to see how the trans-Alaska oil pipeline survives the movements of the Denali fault, which it traverses. After observing how various technological features allow the pipeline to flex with the earth’s movements, Winchester ends the book with a pronouncement about “the fragility of humankind [and] the evanescent nature of even our most impressive achievements.”


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 36

Booklist 101, no. 22 (August 1, 2005): 1951.

Entertainment Weekly, October 7, 2005, pp. 80-82.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 15 (August 1, 2005): 841.

Library Journal 130, no. 15 (September 15, 2005): 76.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (October 9, 2005): 18.

Newsweek 146, no. 16 (October 17, 2005): 70.

People 64, no. 15 (October 10, 2005): 51.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 28 (July 18, 2005): 195.

Science 310 (October 7, 2005): 55-56.

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