Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Book Review: Disaster: Major American Catastrophes, by A.A. Hoehling (1973)

Back around 1976, when I was in the fifth grade, I became obsessed with disasters. I don't know why this happened. But for several years thereafter, I read everything I could find about fires, floods, hurricanes, shipwrecks, and so forth. As I grew older I mostly worked it out of my system, although I still get drawn in from time to time.

It wasn't as hard to find this information as you might have expected. Reader's Digest, for example, constantly ran disaster stories. And the school libraries had numerous disaster books. Looking back, I can see that the whole country was sort of disaster-conscious during the 1970s. Airport was released in 1970; The Poseidon Adventure in 1972; The Towering Inferno in 1974; Jaws in 1975. This trend never fully recovered from the release of Airplane in 1980. But like a lot of trends from the 1970s, it never went completely away -- as can be seen by the success of Titanic.

Anyway, to me learning about disasters seemed like a perfectly appropriate and reasonable thing to do, and I kept reading about them. But I hit the jackpot in the late 1970s when I was visiting my mother's parents and found a book called Disaster: Major American Catastrophes. Most of the disaster books back then tried to cover too much information; they would cram so many fires and floods together so that you couldn't get sufficiently drawn into the story. Not A.A. Hoehling. He picked out 13 disasters and gave you a detailed synopsis of each one. He had the whole thing down perfectly -- a quick sketch of the background, a few carefully chosen character studies (some of whom would make it while others would not), and then, in careful detail, he would walk you through what had happened. You would be left to imagine how you would react under such circumstances, or at least how the disaster could have been prevented. He also had great and memorable pictures -- extremely important for this sort of book.

Anyway, I read this book over and over -- almost every time we went to visit my grandparents. But it took me over 30 years, and lots of time on the Internet, to find another copy. Do you realize how many books from the 1970s have "Disaster" in the title? If anyone is looking for it, and you're wondering (like I was) if this is the right one from your past, this book has the 1863 Draft Riots (which were not really a disaster, but which are very interesting), the 1900 Galveston Tidal Wave, the 1915 Eastland Ship Disaster (a ship filled with workers on a daily outing rolled over in the Chicago River, killing 800 people), the 1918 flu, the Hindenburg, the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire, the 1947 Texas City Disaster, the 1950 Thanksgiving Eve crash on the Long Island Railroad, a 1960 airplane crash over New York City, and several others. Believe me, if you read it, you'll remember it.

One final comment: looking back, I now realize that most of the books I read as a kid were non-fiction books written by obscure men trying to make money. This was true of all the sports books I read, and a lot of other books as well, such as this one. Back in the 1970s, there were tons of these non-fiction books that told little stories about the past in chapter form. Sometimes it would be disasters. Sometimes it would be famous battles. Or elections. Or crimes. Or football games. It was a very popular format, presumably because they could sell the books to libraries -- at least that's where I always found them. So most of my knowledge from the world before I went to college came from these books -- which were generally cranked out my anonymous authors who are now forgotten.

But here's the thing: these books were generally very well done. I'm not just saying that because I was a kid at the time; I still have a lot of my favorites, and they hold up very well. The research isn't up to modern standards, and here and there a detail will be incorrect. But they were all grammatically and typographically perfect, they told exciting stories in clean, bright prose, and they kept you turning the pages. I believe there was a professionalism in non-fiction writing -- even writing designed to be read mostly by kids -- that just doesn't exist anymore. The best books today are much better than a lot of what you could find back then, but back then you simply couldn't find a book as poorly written as something like Chasing Greatness. And those books left me with a hunger for reading and knowledge that remains to this day. So I thank all of the writers like A.A. Hoehling who were, in many ways, my best teachers.

Highly recommended for teenagers -- or anyone -- interested in disasters.


  1. I wonder if this or this had much to do with your surge in disaster interest.

  2. Great review, by the way, and shoutout to Hoehling and his ilk, which would also include Jerry Brondfield, about whom I wrote the following in 2006.

    I've considered Wally Lamb, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Hornby, John Steinbeck, Natalie Merchant, Frank Deford, David Halberstam, Carl Sandburg and others to be my favorite writer at some point or another. But I feel confident that I've never read more books by one author than is the case with Jerry Brondfield, who wrote all of the All-Pro Football Stars 1976 and such books for Scholastic Book Services when we were little. I'd buy the football book every fall, and I pretty much always got the basketball and baseball books, too.

    The best part of the football books was the team-preview section in the back where Brondfield rated each team for the upcoming season in different areas with between one and five footballs. For the 1976 season, for example, the categories were quarterbacking, running game, receiving, offensive line and total defense. The Dolphins rated 4.5 footballs for quarterbacking and total defense, 4 footballs for offensive line and 3.5 footballs for both running game and receiving. The Steelers rated a perfect 5 footballs for total defense; 4.5 each for quarterbacking, running game and receiving, and 4 for offensive line. Brondfield gave the Chiefs 3 footballs each for everything but quarterbacking, where he gave them 2.5. The Dolphins ended up going 6-8 in 1976; the Steelers, 10-4, and the Chiefs, 5-9.

    Anyway, I reread All-Pro Football Stars 1976 over the weekend and then this morning found this obit. What a fantastic, fantastic life.

  3. I definitely think the disasters you referenced had a big impact on me. I certainly remember being very disaster conscious as a kid.