Two Books Consider Earthquakes and Their Human Tolls

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Mark Pernice

QUAKELAND
On the Road to America’s Next Devastating Earthquake
By Kathryn Miles
357 pp. Dutton. $28.

THE GREAT QUAKE
How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet
By Henry Fountain
Illustrated. 277 pp. Crown. $28.

In 2010 my wife and I were living in Amsterdam in an apartment on the Spui, a bustling central square in the city. Around the winter holidays my mother-in-law flew out from New Jersey to visit. She and my wife biked around the city, making a point of visiting the Anne Frank Museum. The line to enter the museum, and tour the annex where Anne and seven others hid from the Nazis for two years, spread down the block. Later my wife said she understood why the destination remained so popular. There was something profound about knowing that this single teenage girl — smart, snide, loving and funny — had been living in that same small annex where my wife and mother-in-law had been standing; deeply moving to be reminded that a hateful regime had snuffed that life out.

The next day my wife wondered about the fact that African-American slavery lacked the same, singular being, a young person who could have communicated the horrors — and also the tedium, the joys — of that lived experience. Of course there were escaped slaves who wrote books about their ordeals: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Ann Jacobs, Olaudah Equiano, to name just a few heavy hitters. But there’s something about the unvarnished slice of teenage Anne’s life — the day-to-day highs and lows — that helps her enter the hearts of so many. To read about two years in the life of a teenage black girl who was enslaved — Sally Hemings, for example — and then visit the windowless room where Thomas Jefferson stored her, could be deeply moving in much the same way. But of course slave owners denied Africans the right to read or write , creating laws that made it impossible to set down proof of one’s inner life. When slaves died they left behind physical evidence, but most would never be able to speak for themselves. One way to ensure you’re never prosecuted for a crime is to make it impossible for your victims to testify.

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I had been thinking about this quite a bit lately — about the depths to which civilizations sink — when I read Kathryn Miles’s “Quakeland” and Henry Fountain’s “The Great Quake.” I admit to being in a sour mood. Not about the books, but about humanity. This is a strange mind-set to have when reading about natural disasters. If you’ve been thinking that humanity is hardly worth the trouble to keep around then maybe a cataclysm, or the fear of cataclysms to come, seems like a relief. Let’s sweep humanity off the board and let the rest of the natural world have another go. They could hardly do worse than us.

On Aug. 17, 1959, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake popped off right near Yellowstone National Park. It caused a great deal of damage, including the nation’s biggest recorded rock slide. Over 73 million metric tons of debris came down a canyon wall. Nineteen people were lost underneath. On March 27, 1964, “a great earthquake with a Richter magnitude of 8.4 to 8.6 crippled south-central Alaska,” as the Geological Survey put it in a subsequent report. “It released twice as much energy as the 1906 earthquake that wracked San Francisco.” In the small Alaska town of Chenega a tidal wave, caused by that quake, swept a third of the villagers right out to sea. Both Fountain and Miles are journalists (Fountain has worked at The New York Times for two decades), and their books are chock-full of these kinds of tales, describing the human scale of such disasters. As the death tolls mounted, my misanthropy buckled. It’s one thing to dismiss human beings in the abstract, another to gloss over real loss. Still the danger is that such accounting can numb a reader, become merely a litany of grim tales about the ways humans can die. I’ve already got “Game of Thrones” for that. After a while I wanted a change of scale, something beyond the human struggle, no matter how heartbreaking. Earthquakes aren’t happening to us alone after all; they’re happening to the planet itself.

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