A Weekend in September, John Edward Weems
When a co-worker recently asked me to start a book club at work, I told her that I didn't think there would be much interest. To my surprise, twelve people signed up, and we have our first discussion on Thursday. I said at the initial meeting that I don't want to be the only one suggesting or choosing books, since my reading tastes are pretty eclectic. As a case in point, I was then reading Nayantara Sahgal's memoir Prison and Chocolate Cake, and despite my enthusiastic recap, no one seemed interested in that one. (Just as well, since it's out of print.) After some discussion, someone mentioned this book, a classic of Texas history, and the group quickly agreed. I've heard enough comments over the past couple of weeks to know that people are reading it, so I am hoping for good discussion.
A Weekend in September is an account of the great 1900 Storm. The hurricane that hit Galveston on September 8th is still considered the worst natural disaster in United States history. It left at least 6,000 dead on Galveston Island alone, and the city, then the fourth largest in the state, in ruins. When I moved to Houston twenty-two years ago, I knew about hurricanes, but I thought they only happened in the tropics. I had no idea Texas was ever at risk. This book shattered that comfortable illusion, and I began keeping an eye on the Gulf of Mexico, fifty miles away, and paying close attention to the weather reports in the warm months. We were spared for many years, until Hurricane Ike hit in September of 2008 - one of the longest nights of my life.
To tell the story of the 1900 Storm, John Edward Weems wove together the experiences of people in different parts of the city. He drew on interviews with survivors as well as published sources. When he was researching this book in the mid-1950s, there were still many survivors around, some of whom had been children at the time. (Even in the early 1990s, obituaries in the paper occasionally mentioned that the deceased had survived the 1900 Storm.) The hurricane hit the city on a Saturday. Taking his account chronologically through the weekend, Mr. Weems switched back and forth between several central characters, such as the police chief, as well as introducing others at particular points. This approach reminds me of another classic disaster narrative, Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, which made me a Titanic buff in my teens. As in his book, there is a large cast of characters here, and it can be a bit confusing trying to keep everyone straight. It is also predominately a white cast, reflecting in part the times in which it was written. Mr. Weems presumably could have found African Americans or Hispanics in Galveston who survived the storm. However, both in 1900 and in 1957 they were much less likely to be represented in the historical documentation than today.
Despite occasional moments of lightness, such as a horse that took refuge in a family's second-story bedroom and refused to budge, this is a sombre story, of death and destruction. There are also instances of great courage and concern for others, and of tenderness as families faced the end. The focus on individual experiences always draws me right in, while it breaks my heart. Many of the individuals we meet were later lost in the storm; those that survived were often the only members of their families left. When the storm finally passed, the city was buried in slime and wreckage, with bodies lying everywhere. In the last chapter, Mr. Weems recounted how Galveston began to re-build, an incredible effort that included not just the construction of a protective seawall, but also raising the grade of the entire island by more than five feet. Though Galveston would be hit by several major storms later in the 20th century, none were as destructive as in 1900. People continue to live there, and to build, though it will always be vulnerable to storms. When I first thought about moving to Texas, I wanted to live in Galveston, near the beach. Now I am content to live those fifty miles inland, though that made little difference in Ike.
I've promised to bring some lighter suggestions for next month's book. People want something happier to read over Christmas.