“America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906”
I enjoyed this book on audio as I traveled overseas, filling in the margin time of standing in line or busing across the country late at night with the history and science of earthquakes across the world, but most specifically in San Francisco in 1906. The research and detail with which Winchester fills this book would have been difficult for me to consume entirely had it been on paper or Kindle, specifically since I have very little geological background to give his information context. But in listening, I felt as though I was sitting on a train with an older gentleman, a professor perhaps, who had a great story to tell and who could do so with confident, engaging skill.
Winchester’s approach is not merely an intricate look at the singular earthquake of 1906. Instead, he focuses on what this particular earthquake meant in its global context at the time, how seismic science has developed since the shifting of plates, how the disaster and its subsequent fire affected certain aspects of the city’s politics and culture, and how this singular tragedy helps clarify the earth’s internal pressures and movements (tagged the Gaia Theory). Hopefully, these lessons can help scientists further understand the earth’s singular connection, so that we can more accurately predict the future tragedies we already anticipate.
I found two particular points in this book most interesting, mere side notes in the cultural sections of the chronicle. First is Winchester’s detailing of the Chinese immigration issue surrounding San Francisco at the turn of the century. Already, the city had been struggling to determine what to do with the influx of Chinese immigrants, and when all immigration documentation was incinerated in the citywide fire, this influx became an all-out explosion of Chinese “Paper People,” so-called “relatives” of American citizens who now saw the destruction of red-tape as an open door into the nation. As a result, the city created Angel Island, an almost prison-like West Coast version of Ellis Island, where hopeful Chinese immigrants were held in wood barracks for months at a time, until they could either prove their relation through thousand-question interviews or fail and be sent home on the next steamer west. This system outlived the 1906 earthquake and rebuilding, being finally dismantled in 1948.
Second is Winchester’s notes on the explosive development of the Pentecostal movement as a direct result of the earthquake, what practitioners considered to be God’s divine judgment on a wicked city and His confirmation of their supernatural message. I know very little of the roots of this movement which has all but destroyed the name of Jesus across the world (ironically, in the name of Jesus; see Matthew 7:21-23), save for anecdotes derived from their various waves, so this quipped history from a secular historian was a helpful addition to my own snail-like research.
I appreciated Winchester’s circumspect report on this tragedy, as well as his supportive points for why the Gaia Theory makes sense. I have no problem with viewing the world as one massive unit, plates floating on molten lava, which acts and reacts to itself on a consistent basis, so long as that theory doesn’t also include our own intertwined spiritual relationship with the earth (as suggested in the “epic cartoon,” Avitar). After all, we humans have been divinely given the responsibility of subduing the earth and having dominion over its creaturely inhabitants (Genesis 1:26-28), making her neither our Mother nor our Siamese twin.
I learned a lot from this book, and I look forward to reading (or listening to) more from Simon Winchester.