Written On The Wind

The Argument

Whether trapped by ice, fire, earthquake or water, man shares top billing with nature in disaster stories that take readers by storm.

December 19, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

What's not to like about a natural disaster story --unless, of course, it's happening to you.

Bookstore shelves and discount bins sag under the weight of volumes about twisters, blizzards, avalanches and nor'easters. Walls of water 100 feet high. Winds that scour the landscape like steel wool. Life-sapping cold. They run the gamut from obscure events of yesteryear to stories "ripped from the pages of the newspaper," as one breathless blurb blurted.

The disaster books being churned out by the dozens each year have rendered obsolete the placid travelogues of Lowell Thomas. Man vs. the elements has replaced man vs. cheetah as the ultimate adventure story.

Of course, calamities have been page-turners since Biblical times, when seas swallowed armies, plagues visited houses and day turned to night. After all, there's nothing like a little act of God to give one pause, and religion.

"If Exodus were being pitched today, it would be as an adventure story," says New York literary agent Stuart Krichevsky, who has handled several best-selling misadventures in recent years.

The written word isn't the only vehicle for the disaster-adventures we embrace, either. Irwin Allen gave moviegoers The Poseidon Adventure, about a large wave, a large boat and Shelley Winters. The Weather Channel uses disaster as a programming tool, with a nightly show, Storm Stories, that highlights regular folks battling bags of wind even mightier than Donald Trump. And, of course, radio pauses each week to warn us that "in the event of an actual emergency" we will all be instructed to tune to a station controlled by some faraway media conglomerate.

We love our cataclysmic entertainment because when it's over, we adjust the thermostat and move on. It's adventure minus the messy cleanup.

In recent years, litterae calamitas has reached gale-force proportions, fed, in no small part, through two books published within months of each other: Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer and The Perfect Storm, by Sebastian Junger.

"Both books brought you into a world you weren't familiar with, and that is quite exciting," says Krichevsky, who handled Junger's book. "We do like to be scared in the safety of our living rooms."

Indeed, Junger's frightening description of drowning creates a claustrophobic sensation. Krakauer's story of eight climbers who perished in a rogue storm on Mount Everest reminds us how tiny and helpless we are.

The same can be said of David Laskin's unblinking description of freezing to death in his new book, The Children's Blizzard, (HarperCollins, $24.95, 320 pages). His account makes you want to grab a goose-down vest and throw another log on the fire. A self-described "weather nut" in Seattle, Laskin is the author of Braving the Elements, a history of U.S weather.

This time, he tells the story of the blizzard of Jan. 12, 1888, a midday storm that struck the prairie states so suddenly that it caught children at school and farmers in their fields. They were trapped in a swirling "frozen hell" that made rescue nearly impossible.

"The air was so thick with fine-ground, wind-lashed ice crystals that people could not breathe. The ice dust webbed their eyelashes and sealed their eyes shut. It shifted into the loose weave of their coats, shirts, dresses and underwear until their skin was packed in snow."

Cold, wind and fire -- even in the extreme -- are conditions that we grasp.

"We live in a very anxious time and the dangers we face are difficult to understand. There's something oddly comforting to read a book where the danger is very easy to understand," says Krichevsky.

Natural disaster stories have other draws for readers: the awe of forces over which we, masters of the climate-controlled environment, have no control; and the speculation about how we might stack up in the same circumstances.

"We can identify with the victim without getting killed," says John MacLean, wildfire expert and author of Fire on the Mountain and Fire and Ashes. MacLean's esteemed father, Norman, wrote Young Men and Fire, one of the earliest accounts of a fatal wildfire.

Then there's our "there but for the grace of God go I" thankfulness and the vicarious thrill of living someone else's crapshoot. Or, as Laskin writes: "Chance is always a silent partner in disaster. Bad luck, bad timing, the wrong choice at a crucial moment, and the door is inexorably shut and barred."

Hundreds of people, most of whom were recent immigrants, died in the blizzard of '88. As the storm closed in, people made snap decisions. Perversely, good judgment did not always bring a happy ending, and befuddled reasoning did not always spell doom. Many victims were children who, with their teachers, chose to make a run for it and froze within shouting distance of shelter. If only their voices had carried above the gale.

Well-done disaster stories feed us mini-science lessons as they also fill us with dread. Many tales have clearly defined good guys and bad guys. And often the good ones die.

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