Dec 21

Review: Hot Time in the Old Town

Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore RooseveltHot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward P. Kohn

This was the worst sort of book–not good enough that I really enjoyed reading it, but not bad enough to take it to the library without finishing it. I am not the right audience for this book; shockingly, I’m not nerdy enough. It deals with the heat wave of 1896, and with the political campaign heating up (ha ha) that year in New York.
One of the issues with this book is that it is not really a book about Theodore Roosevelt as much as it is about William Jennings Bryan. If I already knew a lot about both politicians, and wanted to get a deeper knowledge, this book might fill some gaps. As it was, I didn’t go into this knowing much about William Jennings Bryan, and nothing in these pages made me care. I especially don’t care about his speeches and how his bid for the presidency fared, except as a way of informing me about the time period. I don’t even follow modern political campaigns.

The other subject of this book is the heat wave itself. I’ll include a quote, because I think it illustrates why this is not a captivating subject.

“Heat waves are not like other disasters. Heat kills slowly, over days. It does not leave marks on the victim’s body. Nor does it destroy buildings or leave any physical evidence of its destructive force. There is no single moment when a heat wave strikes, no specific time allowing survivors to recall the moment when it began.”

The problem is that a heat wave is not a gripping disaster, whether natural or man-made. It’s not a perfect storm or a plane crash or a maritime disaster, where heroes arise. Nor is it an epidemic, which can also be an exciting murder mystery (as in THE GHOST MAP). Poor people died, those in control shrugged, meanwhile, let’s read about Bryan’s opinions on bimetallism.

What I did like about this book was the way it touched on the horrid conditions in New York in the poorer areas in the nineteenth century. I’m as ghoulishly fascinated by the tragic deaths of others as most nineteenth century Americans were. I was also aghast at the incompetence and corruption of the officials. You can talk about poor modern response to natural disasters, but it seems the prevailing attitude of the time was so poisonously macho that the city officials woulnd’t even institute a siesta or let people sleep in the parks (the latter for fear that homeless people would do it). They didn’t even try to do anything to alleviate suffering until after the heat wave had already broken, and killed over a thousand people. Probably unintentionally, this book is a good argument for social welfare. Unbridled captialism looks a lot like shrugging and leaving for Long Island while your constituents die in the gutter.

This book is best for people who already know a lot about America in the latter 19th century and want to fill in some gaps. The research feels thorough, but the prose isn’t deft enough to entice lay readers.

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