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'A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster' by Rebecca Solnit

Disasters bring out an altruistic side of people, at least briefly, author says.

September 27, 2009|William Deverell | Deverell is director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and currently the Frederick W. Beinecke Senior Fellow in Western Americana at Yale.

A Paradise Built in Hell

The Extraordinary Communities

That Arise in Disaster

Rebecca Solnit

Viking: 354 pp., $27.95


The bad news is that more disasters are coming, arising from any number of sources: climate change, widespread infrastructural vulnerabilities, toxic threats brewed at cellular or weapons-grade levels, seismic or oceanic volatility, and so on and so on. Whatever their cause, disasters will be born of some mixture of human and natural action or inaction, lives will be irrevocably altered, and absurd numbers of people will die.

Yet Rebecca Solnit sees human possibilities inherent in the certainty of big trouble. In "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster," this writer of impressive versatility explores disasters and the goodness that can come to characterize them. A careful student of the sociology of catastrophe, Solnit argues that the human experience of disaster so alters convention that a different social milieu can emerge, if briefly, within them; one distinguished by altruism and the absence of social hierarchies. In contrast to the presuppositions of the powerful (and Hollywood), steadfast about the inevitability of anarchic mayhem and riot, Solnit makes a convincing case for the sheer dignity and decency of people coming together amid terror.

This is no easy task. How to tease out, much less emphasize, threads of hope or community from the shattered spaces and lives of calamity? How can supposedly redemptive, even joyful, qualities emerging amid horror be explored so as to not render the interpreter naive, callous or both?

Solnit is neither naive nor blind to the misery out of which she finds faith forged. In taut case studies of North American disasters that reach from Nova Scotia to Mexico City and from 1906 to 9/11, she blends reportage with research and folds in a kind of theological musing with political enthusiasm. The result is almost always captivating and compelling, not least because she is unusually gifted at mixing dispassionate narration with fervent, first-person experience.

The cataclysmic events make for gripping, if grim, reading. While referencing a litany of disasters across time and space, Solnit focuses on five: the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, an explosion in a Nova Scotia harbor more than a decade later, the devastating 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina's 2005 assault on the Gulf Coast. The research is meticulous; where possible, the author has interviewed survivors or witnesses. Solnit's description of the older events is especially compelling as they are less well known and the accretion of a century's time makes them look, sound and feel more exotic once Solnit excavates and narrates them.

Take the case of the Mont Blanc, a cargo ship stuffed to the gunwales with munitions, which was rammed by another ship trying to pass it and then blew up in the Halifax harbor in the winter of 1917. There was nothing remotely ordinary about the event. Three decades had passed since the Indonesian island of Krakatoa vaporized after volcanic action detonated one of the most explosive events in Earth's history; now the Mont Blanc exploded in the largest man-made explosion prior to the advent of atomic bombs. People, houses, what was left of the ship: All flew crazily into the air, coming down in pieces of what once was whole. The shank of the ship's 1,000-pound anchor fell to Earth two miles away. The explosion's effect was veritably nuclear: An air burst and firestorm crushed and burned every building within a mile. The blast ripped the tightly cinched wintertime shoes and clothing from the living and the dead. Windows shattered 50 miles away. More than 1,500 died. Six times that many were injured.

The disaster spurred those victims able to respond into acts of amazing heroism and altruism (and helped launch modern disaster studies no sooner had the fire cooled). A railroad dispatcher, facing certain death, charged into a telegraph office to send an urgent warning to an incoming passenger train only minutes before the ship blew up. "Guess this will be my last message," he tapped out. "Goodbye boys." The train stopped in time, the ship exploded, the hero died.

The nobility of those who died in disasters catches Solnit's attention, as it should, for one of her major aims is to commemorate the mortal heroism inherent to cataclysmic events. But the living claim most of the consideration in this thought-provoking book.

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