The Burning of the World

The Burning of the World by Scott Berg

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Burning of the World:

Politics may have done more damage than the fire.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Fact for Non-History People:

In today’s dollars, we can estimate the fire caused about $5-7 billion dollars in damage.

Fact for History Nerds:

Chicago was only 34 years old when the fire hit.

My Take on The Burning of the World:

Some events are so big that it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t know about it. The Great Chicago Fire is one of those events. Everyone knows the story. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern. Or was it “Peg Leg” Sullivan? (Oh, and her name wasn’t even O’Leary.) Big events can be mangled and misunderstood almost as soon as they happen. Their repercussions can be even further controversial.

Into this epic period of history steps Scott Berg and his book, “The Burning of the World.” Berg takes a look at the fire, the response, and then the political climate the fire created. The fire takes up about the first third of the book and it is exceptional. Berg is able to chronicle the disaster without getting too lost in the details and keeps the narrative kinetic throughout. I absolutely loved this portion and the stories of how the fire quickly overwhelmed the fire department.

The other two thirds of the book look at the aftermath and the politics after the fire. While this section is interesting in its own right, it lacks the urgency of the fire narrative and feels like it jumps around from things like Sunday drinking laws and union strikes. Berg does connect these things, but they just do not feel as compelling as the fire itself. That said, the whole book is worth a read and even the slower parts still contain a lot to like.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor Books.)


A great read. Buy it here!

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