I can sum Alwyn Scarth’s La Catastrophe up in one sentence: light on the geology, heavy on the salacious details. Sigh. And I’d so been looking forward to it. I wanted to know more about the 1902 eruptions of Mount Pelée. Those events wiped out a city and introduced the infant science of volcanology to a whole new style of eruption. It could have been an outstanding book on the subject.
This book is written by a professor of geology. I wish he’d played to his strengths. Instead, he appears to have tried to produce a journalistic work about a great human tragedy, and merely comes across as stiff, at times almost uncaring. There’s some drama – can’t help but to be, what with an entire city wiped off the face of the earth in less than two minutes. The description is frequently vivid. There were some good people I learned about who tried very hard to alleviate suffering. There were tragedies. You can’t walk away from this book without feeling for them.
But I, at least, walked away with mostly disgust. The volcano is cast as a villain, and plays no other role. The geology behind what happened is glossed. I’d swear there’s more solid geology in the Wikipedia entry for Mount Pelée than there is in this entire book, which for the cover price is disappointing, to say the least.
The first half of the book is an attempt to paint the picture of a thriving civilization complicated by racial, class and economic tensions. It somewhat succeeds, but Saint-Pierre and its people are never painted in particularly vivid colors. Myths are busted with a rather sneering air. I like a good sneer as much as the next person, but sneers about people caught in a chaotic and dangerous sequence of events – not so much.
Geology happens, but is never adequately explained. A dome appears from nowhere. Rivers flood repeatedly for seemingly no reason. We’re given no overview of the geology of the area. There’s just this volcano erupting, and it’s emphasized the poor ignorant folk didn’t know about nuée ardentes back in 1902 – well, by the end of the book, we don’t know about them, either. We know they destroy cities and burn people. That’s about it. We’re not enlightened about how and why they happen. We’re no wiser about the way they behave, and what they consist of. Shit happens, and we never quite understand why. If I’d had no background in geology before reading this book, I couldn’t have filled in any of the many blanks Dr. Scarth leaves. The fact that I do have some knowledge of geology means I was frequently howling at him, especially when he skimped so badly as to become sloppy.
Dr. Scarth also likes tidal waves. He talks about tidal waves all the time. He talks about the tidal wave that destroyed Galveston, Texas in 1900. I’m not sure if his university calls storm surges “tidal waves,” and if they do, fine – but the use of a vague and often inaccurately-applied term to something that has a well-known and well-defined term, not to mention his occasional slipping into calling tsunamis caused by Mount Pelée “tidal waves,” annoyed me. It’s a peeve.
Empathy for the victims is lacking in many places. It’s hard to describe – it’s not like he comes across as clinical and dispassionate. It’s more like rubbernecking at a train wreck. Sometimes, flashes of the immense human suffering and tragedy come through. Sometimes, you’re moved to pity as well as horror. You do get to know and admire a few of the survivors. But for the most part, it’s a litany of burned flesh and horrific injuries. The damage done to bodies and buildings seems to be described with the same relish. And when, on page 217, he says he doesn’t know whether a woman running to get a dying priest water had forgotten to put on shoes as “a result of excessive eagerness, stupidity or shock,” he lost me completely. A good man, a caring man, who had been enveloped in the searing heat of the August 30th nuée ardente and burned inside and out wanted water. A woman who had just been through a second catastrophe, had just watched people annihilated around her, ran off to get it for him without thinking of appropriate footwear. How do you even speculate she may be stupid?
So, while this book does dispel some myths quite well, and while the accounts of survivors and eyewitnesses – interesting, informative and often heartbreaking – make up for some of its deficits, I can’t recommend it. Someone else will have to do the story of la catastrophe justice. Meanwhile, if you want a copy of this one, find it on sale or used.