Book Review: The Last Days Of St. Pierre

I really have no idea what is coming over me; I think I am slowly turning into something of a fan of natural disaster books.  Okay, to be honest, I know exactly what it is that has come over me, and that would have to be the brilliance of Ernest Zebrowski.

It began when I reviewed Category 5 for University of Michigan Press.  The book, penned by Judith Howard and Ernest Zebrowski, turned out to be a surprisingly gripping and well told story that managed to provide a perfect blend of scientific fact and theory along with edge of your seat, nail biting narrative.

It is thanks much to Ms. Howard that I had received The Last Days of St. Pierre, an earlier work by Professor Zebrowski, and much like the book I read earlier, this volume I devoured thoroughly.

The question of the day is what makes a disaster?  What makes it real?  The scientific facts are, regardless of their magnitude, regardless of the awe inspiring scope, simply that; scientific facts.  Even when displayed with death tolls, a disaster, natural or man made, often times fails to register with someone on the periphery or further out, digesting the incident from the evening news, or researching it out of dry school texts and encyclopedias.

It is the social aspect, that key human ingredient that truly makes the natural disaster real.  Not the body count, but the stories.  Not the objective retelling of what happened, but the visceral, up close and personal telling from a survivor.

Zebrowski gets this, and he gets it well.  There is no doubt that the author gets Volcanoes, their science he understands, at least as well as science allows us today, but it is this last element that takes St. Pierre, and transforms what could have easily been a boring record of events into one hell of a ride.  From the very beginning, you know to strap yourself in, and keep all hands and arms inside the vehicle.

It was a big freighter, around one hundred yards long, but was curiously naked of most of the usual steamer’s superstructure.  It was taking up dock space even though there was no sign that it was being loaded or unloaded or repaired.  The merriment on the waterfront failed to distract the young engineer’s attention from the ghostlike hulk.  He stuck the stub of his cigar between his teeth and walked out to the quay for a closer look.

The ship smelled of recently charred wood and other odors he couldn’t quite identify.  Masts, rigging, and tarpaulins had been destroyed.  The sections of its decks that remained intact lay buried under several feet of wet gray ash–much deeper than the ash that blanketed the rest of the port.  Most of the paint on the iron hull was blistered.  He strained his eyes to decipher the scorched lettering on the transom.  “Roddam,” he read aloud.  “London.”

“Pride of the Scrutton Line,” responded a voice.  The ash carpet had muffled the sound of the stranger’s approach.  He was an older man, with weary eyes that didn’t bother to acknowledge the young engineer but instead were stuck on the burned hulk.  “Steamed off from this very pier yesterday,” he said.

“Off to where?”

“To hell, my boy,” said the old man.  “Steamed off to hell.  And we’re lookin’ at what the devil sent back.”

Between the covers of Zebrowski’s work is a time machine, one that takes the reader back to the turn of the twentieth century, setting the reader down on a tropical paradise in the Pacific ocean, buffetted by the tradewinds where Mt. Pelee overlooks St. Pierre, the “Little Paris” of the West Indies.

There we are introduced to Louis Mouttet, the newly appointed governor of the island of Martinique, Andreus Hurard who controlled the local press, and exerted said control for his own political benefit, and the noble Fernand Clerc.  In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the rich tapestry of characters that Zebrowski weaves almost upstages Mt. Pelee until the volcano can stand the inattention no longer and erupts into a rage that shakes the reader to their very core.

And thus, Mr. Zebrowski has now established a pattern for himself, drawing us into these natural disasters with intriguing narrations, while at the same time subtly instructing us on everything from the social aspects (much of the story of St. Pierre is indeed more about the political failures and individual successes and luck than anything else), to the hard physical science.

In the end, what you are left with is a complete package, one as entertaining as instructive, and every bit as good a read as any bestseller novel.  Even if you aren’t a natural disaster buff, as was I, I still encourage you to pick up a copy and give it a read.

One Response to “Book Review: The Last Days Of St. Pierre”

  1. jean-yves clerc says:

    I am the great grandson of Fernand Clerc, and i would appreciate any information you have about this tragic day

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