Let me admit from the start: I have a complicated relationship with Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland.
I’m going to give you the verdict right up front here: don’t waste your money on this book. I got the Kindle edition on sale for $1.99, and I’m ashamed I spent that much. The only reason I didn’t return it was this review.
No, I didn’t finish the book. Yes, I’m reviewing it anyway. I got far enough in to be confident it wasn’t going to improve. There may be a diamond or two in that vat of raw sewage, but why continue to search there when there’s a prolific diamond mine of a book available on the same subject?
Let’s count the numerous issues you’ll encounter in just the first 15% of this book.
The Science: Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts don’t know it. At first, it’s NBD: referring to the steam and ash plumes a waking volcano emits as “smoke” is irritating to those of us who know better, but it’s not an abominable error. Calling the ash “Sulphur ash” when what they mean is it smelled like sulfur is inaccurate and could be confusing, but it’s not that big a deal. But those little errors pile up quickly, making you doubt the authors understand this eruption the way they want to convince you they do.
Then it starts becoming more obvious they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. When describing the geologic history of the Lesser Antilles, they say the islands are “the result of volcanic eruptions forcing the ocean bed up 10,000 or more feet.” That’s absolutely not how it works! Extrusive volcanic activity that builds islands isn’t shoving the ocean floor up: it’s piling stuff atop it.
It gets worse. In Chapter Two, they begin describing the lava streaming from Peleé’s summit. There’s just one problem with that: Peleé didn’t emit any lava flows during the eruptions in May 1902; not on the 2nd, not on the 8th, not on any day. Most contemporaneous accounts by eyewitnesses and investigators don’t mistake mudflows or pyroclastic flows for lava, either. So even if Jules Sequin, their supposed eye-witness, did report seeing “a long tongue of fresh lava,” it’s incumbent on them to state what the actual material was. They never do. The reader unfamiliar with the 1902 eruption would be left thinking lava flows were totally happening.
At this point, we’re less than 10% of the way through this book, and I’ve had it with their incompetence. But I read on, and get treated to a long passage about lava invading Le Prêcheur, an event which never happened. I have no idea where the authors pulled their “facts” from, but I suspect they emerged brown and stinky.
They of course continue to mangle facts (they think volcanoes happen when the Earth’s crust cools and cracks, apparently), but at this point, the horse I’m beating is definitely deceased. We have abundant proof we can’t trust their geologic descriptions. So let us move on to their other sins.
The history: Writing about historic events where all the eyewitnesses are long dead is difficult. Reconstructing conversations, actions, and thought processes is risky: you want to be engaging and make things feel dynamic rather then dry and academic, but you can’t get too creative unless you’re writing fiction. Most authors proceed with caution. These two proceed with wreckless abandon. They presume to know every thought, mannerism, and movement of their subjects, even the ones who left no detailed accounts behind. You begin to wonder if a) they have a really great medium on retainer or b) they’re just making shit up.
I’m sure they’d say they’re working from reports and documents of the time, but they don’t quote anything directly. They don’t show their work. And I frankly wouldn’t believe they found accounts that described every step, every adjustment of clothing, and every single thought and word of people who died nearly instantly in a city-leveling catastrophe. That level of detail belongs in a novelization, not a book which purports to be a true and faithful record of events as they actually happened. After a certain amount of mind-reading, I just can’t take the writers seriously anymore.
I won’t deny they have an engaging writing style, and the novel-quality description and prose was engaging. I might have kept reading the book while pretending it was billed as based-on-a-true-story and marketed as fiction, which would have allowed me to get my $2 worth.
But then we got to the misogyny and fat shaming, and that’s where I stopped.
The bigotry: The misogyny wasn’t entirely awful, but when they describe a woman as crisp and capable on one page, then have her hysterically screaming for an entire hour a page or two later, I’ve gotta roll my eyes. Even if you do witness your dad and his employees getting eaten by a mudflow, as a crisp and capable woman, you’ll scream for a minute at most before doing something else. Even if the horrific event completely breaks you, the human throat isn’t fucking capable of that much sustained screaming. The authors would know this if they weren’t inclined to think of women in a crisis as hysterical.
But the part that made me close my kindle app in utter disgust is where they spend several pages sneering at Governor Moultet of Martinique as fat and ugly. They lavish details on the situation. They go on at some length about how handsome he used to to be. Disgust fairly drips from their pens as they describe how the man had the sheer audacity to lose his looks due to bouts of dysentary and malaria, and his waistline due to love of good food. By the end, the authors leave you with the feeling they despise Moultet far more for his appearance then for the many errors in judgement he made regarding Peleé.
I read on for several more pages, but I was done. Between the glaring geological errors, the frankly unbelievable writing, their casual sexism, and their villainizing a man not for his actions but his appearance, I’d had enough.
There’s no reason to waste your time with this book. Read Ernest Zebrowski Jr.’s excellent The Last Days of St. Pierre instead. You deserve a better book than these authors are capable of delivering.
This book made me incredibly angry*, and it’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. If I had tons of money, I’d give a copy to literally everyone. Should you buy this book? Yes.
Do you know anyone who’s skeptical about the necessity of monitoring volcanoes? Send them this book and let them know their opinions won’t be entertained until they’ve read it in full.
Do you know anyone who’s thinking of becoming a volcanologist? They need a copy.
If you read it yourself, you need to be prepared.