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Review: The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

Description:
The stunning story of one of America’s great disasters, a preventable tragedy of Gilded Age America, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation’s burgeoning industrial prosperity.
In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Despite repeated warnings of possible danger, nothing was done about the dam.
Then came May 31, 1889, when the dam burst, sending a wall of water thundering down the mountain, smashing thr
ough Johnstown, and killing more than 2,000 people. It was a tragedy that became a national scandal.

Graced by David McCullough’s remarkable gift for writing richly textured, sympathetic social history, The Johnstown Flood is an absorbing, classic portrait of life in nineteenth-century America, of overweening confidence, of energy, and of tragedy. It also offers a powerful historical lesson for our century and all times: the danger of assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibly.

My opinion:
There is not a spare word used in this brilliant and absorbing account of an American tragedy that resonates to this day – the breaking of a dam and a tidal wave of water destroying everything in its path, claiming over two thousand human lives of all ages and numerous animals – is still a legitimate concern in the 21st century.
We fear that the overpasses we drive under will collapse on top of us or that the bridges we drive over will fall out from under us. We go to sleep worrying that dams or levees will fail due to man-made or natural causes or both would lead up to such events. If we wait to take care of our infrastructure until it breaks, then we will continually repeat the Johnstown flood on grand and small scales.
The fear and uncertainty that is palpable throughout the pages of McCullough’s book isn’t just of those who survived the floods of May 31, 1889, but our own, as well. We are reminded every day that we are not in control of the environment around us, that we cannot bend it to our will, no matter what we do.
The lessons from the Johnstown tragedy are ones we still need to learn today – never underestimate the water level, don’t cut corners to accommodate your investors and always place human and animal welfare over the dollar.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

You can purchase David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood by clicking on the title.

Review: Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

From the back cover:
“Turning away from the privileged world of the ’eminent Victorians’, Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) explored, mapped, and excavated the world of the Arabs. Recruited by British intelligence during World War I, she played a crucial role in obtaining the loyalty of Arab leaders, and her connections and information provided the brains to match T.E. Lawrence’s brawn. After the war, she played a major role in creating the modern Middle East and was, at the time, considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire.”

I’ve been recommending this book right and left to friends, family and strangers. An excellent read about a strong, independent and intelligent woman who was ahead of her time, it’s also a timely book, given the current political climate in the Middle East in general and Iraq specifically. Interestingly, many of the obstacles Gertrude Bell faced with her British co-workers in relaying what she knew about the Arab tribes because of her gender are still being dealt with today.

I cannot stress how much I enjoyed this book. Although it takes place in the early part of the Twentieth Century, Bell’s experiences of others due to her gender still resonate today. Her sheer determination and an unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer lead her achievement in venturing into places no other person ever attempted. She not only learns the language, but takes the time to observe the hierarchy and customs, earning her the respect of the tribe leaders she meets.

Although much of Gertrude Bell’s work in the Middle East took place during World War I, it read as if it was happening in the here and now. Articulate, intelligent, educated and well-versed in the culture she chose to live in, Bell dealt with men in positions of power who chose not to listen to her opinions. She felt that the wisest course in giving the Middle East some stability was to put local tribal leaders in positions of power to run their own newly formed government, with British officers acting in supporting roles.

Instead of listening to her advice, Capt. Arnold T. Wilson, among others, followed his own agenda in holding power close to the vest. It would be too easy to dismiss it as being ‘of the time’, that women had no place in politics, either foreign or domestic. The personal conflict between Bell and Wilson reflected the external and volatile conflict between the natives of the Middle East and those who sought to control it.

Desert Queen is a powerful biography with an insightful look inside the Victorian age, the Great War and the Middle East of one hundred years ago. One is left with the personality of a strong and fiercely intelligent woman who defied convention and sought her destiny outside the narrow confines of what was expected of her.

Look for Desert Queen at your local bookshop or on-line.

This review is my personal opinion and mine alone.

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