May 22, 2012

City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago (Review)

On July 19, 1919, a blimp burst into flames and fell from the skies over Chicago, destroying a bank. Three days later, a young girl was sensationally murdered and a transit strike began that would cripple the city for days. But these three stories paled before the terrifying race riots that broke out July 27 when white bathers threw rocks at black swimmers nearing "their" beach, killing a black teenager. The violence rapidly escalated, and in the next week hundreds of people of both races were killed or injured.

Facing down all these calamities was mayor William "Big Bill" Thompson. A cowboy who had turned to politics, Thompson was a controversial, larger-than-life character. Newspapers accused him of graft and corruption, but the working class loved him. Both sides agreed that he had surprising political savvy, and he proved it by holding Chicago together during these crises and then transforming it into the city it is today.

Although Gary Krist's City of Scoundrels is nonfiction, it reads like a novel, with an hour-by-hour accounting of how each disaster unfolded. Krist ably bares the complicated, corrupt politics of Illinois, showing how city and state officials scrambled to deal with each problem and turn it to their own political advantage. Set against the backdrop of Prohibition, the ending of World War I and the great influenza epidemic, City of Scoundrels gives a vivid glimpse at 12 horrifying days in an already difficult era. The lives of Chicagoans, both famous and not, would never be the same again.

I really, really enjoyed City of Scoundrels. It was a fast read - and actually made me want to visit Chicago someday, which is funny because Noel's been saying for years that we should go, and I've always said, "Eh, Chicago... there are so many cooler places!" I liked the book so much that I think I'm going to buy it for my father-in-law for Father's Day (here's hoping he doesn't see this post)!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Should I recommend this to my grandma? Absolutely, especially if she's from Chicago.
I originally wrote this review for Shelf Awareness. The cover image is an affiliate link.

Have YOU been to Chicago?