June 25, 2015


When the Earth Shakes: Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Tsunamis. By Simon Winchester. Viking. $18.99.

     There have been many books for young people about the wonders of the world, about how nature works, about the amazing and sometimes frightening things that occur regularly on our planet; and there have been plenty of profiles of the scientists who study these things, try to make sense of them, and help (in the case of natural disasters) to predict dire events and restore order after they occur. Simon Winchester’s When the Earth Shakes, for ages 10-14, is similar to these books, but it is different, too, for it is a highly personal account of natural disasters by someone whose primary role is that of journalist – someone who takes readers where he has himself gone to explore the wonders and fearful power of geological forces.

     It is not until his Afterword that Winchester states explicitly what is implicit throughout his narrative: “Each of these activities [earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis] happens as a normal part of the functioning of planet Earth. …Part of being a responsible custodian of our planetary resources must also include a respect for the way the planet itself operates.” Everything in the book revolves around this: the enormous human cost of natural disasters must be set against the reality that these are natural events, ones endemic to Earth and ones that will occur again and again, as they have been occurring for millennia beyond count. We humans live as if Earth is stable – even those who live in unstable parts of the world do this, such as those along the San Andreas Fault in California and around the Ring of Fire in the Pacific. But the planet is inherently unstable: what appears otherwise “over time…cannot and will not last.”

     When Earth shrugs, when natural events intersect with human life, it is human life that is bound to be lost. It may be the 185 lives lost in February 2011 in an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, or the 57 who died when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, or the 40,000 killed when Krakatoa blew itself to smithereens in 1883, or the 230,000 who lost their lives in the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Tsunami. These lives are huge to us humans but insignificant to a planet that is unaware of them and that dances to its own tune. Indeed, Winchester shows that plate tectonics, which are responsible for many of the most frightening and dramatic natural disasters, really are a sort of dance, with molten rock below the Earth’s surface causing 15 huge, solid plates and about 50 smaller ones to move slowly, constantly and steadily.

     Winchester expertly mixes his personal experiences and knowledge with scientific explanations, photographs both modern and historical, and highly informative graphics – one of which, for example, shows where all 15 of Earth’s major plates lie. He explains the Richter scale and volcanic explosivity index, discusses (and shows in photos) the devastation of the 2011 tsunami in Japan (contrasting its horrific effects with the grandeur of the famous Hokusai painting of a great wave), briefly and tellingly profiles a couple of the victims of the Mount St. Helens eruption, mentions the heroic and unnamed telegraph operator who died immediately after telling the world in Morse code about the Krakatoa eruption, and is generally very effective in meshing the small, human and personal stories occurring in the course of gigantic natural disasters with a discussion of the scientific study and understanding of what occurs.

     When the Earth Shakes is part of a series created in collaboration with, and using information from, the Smithsonian Institution. This is what gives the book much of its scientific gravitas. What comes through, page after page and photograph after photograph, is the astounding power lying just beneath our feet and bursting through again and again, always unpredictably despite increasingly sophisticated efforts to anticipate (if not control) its effects. What also comes through is the resilience of human beings affected by these disasters – not individually, perhaps, but collectively: the refusal to give in to Nature’s might despite the fact that humans are grossly overmatched when it comes to events that are literally earthshaking. Winchester is at his best when describing, first, what people saw and experienced during horrendous natural disasters; and, second, how they responded afterwards. His comments on Japan after the March 2011 tsunami are particularly telling – he notes that the Japanese “did not give up in the face of nature’s onslaught. They did not wait for government to help. …They rationed food and medicine, found fresh water, repaired roads, cleared debris and sorted it into neat piles, reopened schools with volunteer teachers, and kept the children amused and as content as possible. The spirit of Japan in the face of a tsunami catastrophe is something that disaster planners all around the world have come to admire and hope that their own communities might use as a model.” In the final analysis, it is the contrast between what is awe-inspiring and fear-inspiring in nature and what is admirable and determined in humans that makes When the Earth Shakes a book that fascinatingly balances the nearly unlimited potency of the forces that shape Earth with the indomitability of the human spirit – although not of individual humans – confronted by that overwhelming power.

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