Walking the dog last week I saw a buzzard eating a possum. And, just as when I'd previously seen dramatic rainbows, dazzling lightning storms, or a distant funnel cloud, I processed it through my media experiences. This looks just like it does in a movie! That looks better than something on Discovery Channel!
But imagine what New England farmer Samuel Stone thought in 1680 when a singing, swirling, spiraling cloud descended upon his property, tearing the roof off his barn and leaving a devastating swath of destruction. He'd never seen a film, show or even a drawing of a tornado; he had no idea what to even call it. Stone was fascinated, frightened and dumbfounded.
As Chicagoan Lee Sandlin documents in his thrilling new book, "Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers," the next three centuries of tornado "experts" continued this tradition of ignorance. It requires no spoiler alert to reveal that the epilogue details how technology removed some of the mystery and wonder of tornadoes. I don't mean weather analysis technology, as debate about the causes of tornadoes still abounds. Camera phones and YouTube channels filled with "Torn Porn" — images of ferocious funnel clouds — have been responsible for debunking many archival descriptions.
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Despite never quite grasping what they were studying, the American men who devoted large portions of their lives to unlocking the mysteries of twisters were heroic in their obsessive pursuit of knowledge. These wind-chasing Don Quixotes include Increase Mather, with his 17th century studies of Lucifer-powered weird weather, a fascinated Ben Franklin riding his horse to the edge of a funnel cloud, and obstinate 19th century meteorologist James Espy, who refused to update his theories even when they proved certainly wrong (though some eventually proved less wrong). There's the bearlike John P. Finley, who spent the half century after the Civil War applying his OCD-like nature to the meticulous documentation of tornadoes. And there was Ted Fujita, the 20th century Japanese scholar who took a position at the
Sandlin's triumph is turning a historical survey of generations of American tornado scholars, victims and obsessives into something that reads like a brisk novel. It offers an epic scope reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez; vivid, eccentric characters that could inhabit a Jonathan Lethem book; rivalries as intense as anything in Dostoevsky or Archie comics; and wonders as grand as any described by
But Sandlin's attempt to turn history into entertainment is not alchemy: As he documents magnificently, science and showbiz were intimately intertwined in America's early years. Ben Franklin's fascination with electricity (his famed kite and key experiment unintentionally establishing him as a storm expert) came from watching "Electricians," traveling magicians who did sideshow tricks with static electricity. The lyceum circuit of the early 19th century saw semi-professional scientists give lectures and debates before an everyman audience, the validity of theories determined by audience applause. Even the scientific papers published in the 19th century, at least the ones that proved useful to Sandlin, so valued dramatic, anecdotal accounts that a seaman who witnessed a storm was as welcome as his professor to submit his paper, making academic journals as action packed as an episode of "Deadliest Catch" or
But in one way "Storm Kings" is profoundly different from fiction: a dark, violent storm in a novel, movie or TV show is at the minimum a demarcation of bad news, and is frequently a key narrative invention or an important metaphor. The tornadoes that Sandlin and his motley crew of forerunners document seem to have few literary ambitions. Certainly the storms in this book could act as Rorschach tests for various factions (
Which brings to mind another literary precedent for "Storm Kings." Despite Noah encountering a weather emergency with much more narrative focus, the Old Testament provides a fine example of a book where despite numerous fascinating characters, the least-developed protagonist has proven the most important and influential over the centuries. That's not to imply that Sandlin will sell the billions of copies that that other good book has. But there's a good chance that this exciting study may become a bible of sorts to a generation of tornado aficionados, storm chasers and
Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine and co-author of "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop." He lives in Chicago.