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Know the West

A whole lot of shaking


Simon Winchester’s latest book, A Crack in the Edge of the World, takes a comprehensive look at the country’s worst earthquake: San Francisco, 1906. The quake, he writes, "came thundering in on what looked like huge undulating waves ... the whole street and all its great buildings rose and fell, rose and fell, on what looked like an enormous tidal bore, an unstoppable tsunami of rock and brick and cement and stone."

But this masterfully written (if sometimes overwritten) book goes beyond the big quake. Winchester describes the interworkings of tectonic plates and convective currents that underlie the entire Western United States. Yellowstone might one day erupt after a quake in Alaska, he writes; "trauma in one place seems to have an effect on the other." His pre-quake history of California and San Francisco reviews the Gold Rush and the geological exploration of the West, and explains how San Francisco became the principal city of the West and later lost that stature. He discusses the rise in Los Angeles of the Pentecostalists, who ascribed the quake to a punishing God; quake insurance coverage (or the lack of it); and Chinese immigration. His travel writing brings to life Mount Diablo, the Salton Sea, western Canada, Yellowstone, and the 1906 quake towns of Parkfield and Olema.

While A Crack in the Edge of the World is an entertaining read, it contains a deadly serious warning about the ongoing danger along the San Andreas Fault, which may again lay waste to California’s coastal cities.

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906

Simon Winchester

512 pages, softcover: $15.95.

Harper Collins, 2006.