There aren’t many books that have me lowering the temperature of my bathwater for fear of triggering flashbacks to severe burns I’ve never actually suffered. Actually, there’s only been one: this one.
Ernest Zebrowski Jr.’s The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster That Claimed Thirty Thousand Lives.
Remember La Catastrophe? Yeah? Forget it. This is your book about Mont Peleé.
For one thing, the geology’s much better. Pretty amazing that it took a guy with what appears to be a mostly physics and math background to give us some of the geology of this eruption, but there you go. I would’ve liked a lot more, but I didn’t feel cheated. There were a few places where the fact he’s not a geologist by trade comes through – he uses an earlier date for the beginning of plate tectonics than seems to be current consensus, and his description of the Atlantic plate as “squeezing a huge bulge of hot magma toward the surface” made me go nah – but it’s okay. He gets it good enough, and he actually includes some geology, including the geologic setting of Martinique, which is a lot more than I could say about bloody geology Professor Scarth.
In fact, for the most part, he takes us through the geology from the point of view of the folks dealing with an alarming, nasty, and new example of it. After giving us the gist of what we know now, he goes back and shows us what no one knew then. We experience this terrifying eruptive sequence from the perspective of those trying to figure it out. We’re told – well, mostly shown, Dr. Zebrowski’s quite good at that – what they knew. Not much. They had no real idea what a volcano like Peleé can do. So they made some terrible mistakes.
Here’s the beauty of Dr. Zebrowski’s writing: they’re mistakes. He really delved the minds and histories of Governor Mouttet and members of his short-lived science commission, men like Gaston Landes. He read everything they’d produced that had survived, put himself in their shoes, at their time, and shows us they did the best they could. He writes with incredible empathy for pretty much everyone, with the exception of the bureaucrats back in France who refused all responsibility, and the new governor, who got 2,000 more people killed through inexcusable incompetence.
Remember Father Mary’s death? You won’t see people bringing a dying priest water called stupid for forgetting footwear. All of the people who suffered through this are treated with the utmost empathy, and honesty.
Now, that’s not to say Dr. Zebrowski’s gentle. He’s brutally clear about what a volcano can do to people. It never felt like he was dwelling on grotesque details for the sake of salaciousness, but he didn’t discreetly shroud the scenes of devastation in euphemism. No, you will come away with a thorough understanding of what a pyroclastic flow does to human bodies, and why. You won’t be able to read these parts without an adamantium stomach. If you faint when Trauma: Life in the ER or similar comes on, skip those pages. I can tolerate a lot of gore, but there were some seriously rough times – and, like I said, I had a hard time taking a hot bath afterward. Steam burns are awful.
There’s plenty else: the excellent sketches of the people and the city, the skillful tale-telling, and the perfectly-chosen passages written by the people of Martinique as the disaster unfolded. Mont Peleé is assigned no malice – it’s a volcano, not a villain, and is treated as such. We explore its slopes with some very brave souls. We uncover its secrets along with them. And we are given explanations, satisfying if not thoroughly detailed ones, for the various phenomena surrounding the eruptions.
The book doesn’t end with Peleé’s May 8th eruption, but goes on, following the first scientists to arrive. And lemme tell you: those dudes had some adventures. A whole new book could be dedicated to them alone, and perhaps someday, I will write it. Dr. Zebrowski’s laid a good foundation.
In the epilogue, we see St. Pierre today: a shadow of its former self, built on and of ruins, but still lovely, and we know why people would make a reasoned, rational decision to live under that threat.
I’d still like to see a popular book with a stronger focus on the geology, but this one does reasonably well in that department, and has much else to recommend it besides. It has my gold seal of approval.
The book’s much better than the seal, never fear.