Literary nonfiction about unhappy endings

scene of earthquake damage
These three books are about destructive forces, both natural and human.

Below are my reviews of three literary nonfiction books suited for high school English classes, with notes about other subjects with which the books correlate. Also included is information about the lengths of chapters, which is always a concern of the least fluent readers.

The Great Quake

The biggest earthquake in America changed our understanding of the earth.

The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet. Henry Fountain. ©2017. Crown. 277 pp.

Geologist George Plafker arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, the day after the March 27, 1964, Good Friday earthquake devastated the southern half of the state, causing over 130 deaths, and unleashing massive tsunamis. Plafker had been in Alaska before, so he noted after a few hours flying that there was no disruption of the landscape to show the earth had moved. That bothered him. It suggested there was something different about the Good Friday earthquake.    

Plafker would spend the rest of his life trying to figure out how and why, besides its huge strength—9.2 magnitude—the Good Friday earthquake was different. In the process, Plafker would confirm the then-controversial theory of plate tectonics.

Henry Fountain was a reporter and science writer for The New York Times. His journalistic training shows in the way he explains science for people with minimal background. For example, he describes a glacier “is like a giant milling machine moving across the landscape” and says at Valdez “the sediments the dock sat on turned to jelly and slumped during the quake.”

Fountain writes carefully and respectfully about the people who lost loved ones, their belongings, their livelihood in the quake and flooding it caused. For example, he reports on the difficulties small villages face in trying to rebuild: the costs of materials, the need to work quickly, and the emotional issues connected to the villages’ loss and fear.

The Great Quake would be a good complement to students’ studies in science and to students interested in emergency preparedness and crisis management. 

The 15 chapters in The Great Quake average 17 pages long, but they are visually divided into sections by horizontal rules, so students’ reading could be conveniently split into smaller tasks.

The Day the World Went Nuclear

photo of book cover
Photo of cloud arising from bombing of Hiroshima.

The Day the World Went Nuclear: Dropping the Atom Bomb and the End of World War II in the Pacific. Bill O’Reilly. ©2017. Henry Holt. 300 pp.

The format of Bill O’Reilly’s The Day the World Went Nuclear might make students think the book is childish, but it’s not. It is an adult book designed to lay out facts in a readily understandable, straightforward way. O’Reilly leaves the speculation about would have happened if America had not chosen to use atomic bombs to other writers.

O’Reilly puts a multifaceted story in a very accessible format with short chapters, well-leaded type, and lots of pictures. The chapters are dated so it is easy for readers to keep the timeline of events in mind.

One interesting feature of the book is a list of key figures in the development and dropping of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima August 6, 1945, along with photographs of them.

A series of short articles after the text proper present related topics such as the decision to use the bomb, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and America’s incarceration of her Japanese citizens. The book also contains President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech, and chapter devoted to the later lives of individuals associated with the A-bomb drop.

The Day the World Went Nuclear is obviously appropriate in connection with students’ study of American history or world history.  O’Reilly’s book fills in gaps that students’ history texts omit. 

Reading O’Reilly’s text should not be challenging for students eighth grade and above. Chapters are typically only five or six pages long, probably under 1,000 words.

Shooting Lincoln

Cover photo is of the execution of the plotters.

Shooting Lincoln: Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century.  Nicholas J. C. Pistor. ©2017. Da Capo Press. 223 pp.

Let me tell you how good Nicholas J. C. Pistor’s Shooting Lincoln is: I stopped taking notes after the first 100 pages because I couldn’t wait to see how the story ended. I knew photographed story of the century wasn’t the assassination; there are no photos of that. So, what was the big story and who got it first?

The professional competition was between Matthew Brady, who considered himself an artist, and Alexander Gardner, who called himself a photographer.

Brady’s photographs of Lincoln are works of art. His photo of Lincoln standing, taken in New York City before the Republican Convention, may have been responsible for Lincoln’s nomination.

Gardner, an editor from Scotland, learned the basics of photography from Brady, doing grunt work while Brady got the fees and the acclaim. Gardner’s famous battlefield photos from Antietam, which Brady displayed in his studio, revolutionized battlefield photography.

Gardner became convinced that journalism’s future was tied to photography. He proved that in the summer of 1865 by taking the first live-news photograph of the story of the century. (Read the book to learn what that news event was.) Gardner also invented mug shots. They were first used to aid in the search for John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices. 

Shooting Lincoln would complement study in American history, communications, journalism, and business.

Pistor’s book is 16 chapters averaging about 14 pages each, plus a prologue dated Feb. 5, 1865 that begins “The President looked like he was already dead” and an epilogue dated 1875, that’s about motion pictures.

A note about book sources

I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you can get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Postage and handling for up to 18 books is just $4. https://www.hamiltonbook.com/books

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni