Part of the reason why I decided to write about works of nonfiction is because I think nonfiction tends to be looked at as boring, and until I was in high school I was inclined to agree with the nonfiction naysayers. When I was in elementary school, we had these literature anthologies with the most boring nonfiction stories I had ever read. In the defense of those anthologies, my default emotion in any of my classes was “bored,” but I didn’t care about the stories we read, even if they had pretty pictures of lightning and tornadoes.
It is my hope that even if you find it boring, none of you absolutely detest nonfiction, and it is my goal to demonstrate that nonfiction is just as exciting as fiction.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson was a pretty obvious choice for me to write about first. It is by no means a new release. People know about it. And people seem to like it. Heck, Leo DiCaprio bought the film rights for it. One of my college professors was generous enough to let me borrow her copy for research purposes when I told her I wanted to write a novel about a serial killer for an independent study option (spoiler alert: I read the book, but the novel is still yet to be written).
The book is not so much the story of a serial killer as it is a group of stories set against a common backdrop: the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The story of H.H. Holmes, notably one of America’s first documented serial murderers, and who built a so-called “Murder Castle” and lured a number of his victims from the World’s Fair, is just one of three stories Larson shares. Larson also tells the story of architect Daniel Burnham, who took on the heavy responsibility of designing, if you will, the World’s Fair, as well as the story of an Irish immigrant named Patrick Prendergast.
While this work is known primarily for its true crime aspects, I was most impressed by the way Larson wrote the narratives of the three men and organized them through the book. I was also intrigued by the way Larson chose to set the prologue of the book—sort of like how Downton Abbey started—the day after the Titanic sank.
One reason why I think this book has been so successful is that it has the potential to appeal to almost every kind of reader. While its appeal to readers of true crime is more obvious, it also appeals to lovers of architecture and history. And true, it’s a work of nonfiction, but Larson’s writing style and organization of it help it to read with the fluidity of a novel. And for that, I highly recommend it to those of you who are wary of nonfiction.
(I recommend it to pretty much anyone)