skein's Reviews > The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche

The White Cascade by Gary Krist
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's review
Nov 29, 2009

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bookshelves: non-fiction, 3-star
Read in November, 2009

Uniformly enjoyable, but never great.(But enjoyable!) Krist obviously has a crush on O'Neill, the train superintendent, who apparently worked tirelessly, even obsessively, to guard his trains from harm and keep 'em running on time. But even the great O'Neill was unable to stop AN AVALANCHE.

The storm had raged for days, trapping the passenger train on the edge of a mountain. Meanwhile, the passengers sat in the cars (and occasionally wandered out to have lunch at the local greasy spoon), writing letters that grew more and more cranky as the week passed. (Man to daughter: "You're crippled inside your head where you can't use crutches." Ouch.)
Meanwhile, worker crews (composed of itinerants, immigrants, and anyone else desperate enough to do filthy, dangerous, backbreaking work for 10c. an hour) dug out the tracks.
Meanwhile, the blizzard dumped another four feet of snow. The crews dug out the tracks. The passengers grew irate. The mountain sent down a little avalanche over the nearly-clear tracks - just to rub it in.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Until the mountain sent down a massive wave of snow directly on top of the train, knocking it off a cliff and killing a hundred (or so) passengers and crew and untold numbers of workers, most of whom were not documented ...

I have a great deal of admiration for how Krist handled this story. It may be unduly sympathetic to O'Neill - but the passengers are treated both as individuals and as a group, with letter and journal extracts, personal recounting, photographs. The background information on weather, life in 1910, sufferings of train crews, life of O'Neill and his wife - well, there were some graceless transitions, but the information was relevant and interesting.

And there are PICTURES. And CONVERSATIONS. (What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?)

And! the author's brief preface of 'I was scrupulous in my research and included no speculation, except where noted within the text' made my little black heart beat fast. This, ah, this is what non-fiction should be.

Best part: the commission tries to lambaste O'Neill for not, you know, preventing an avalanche by sheer force of will. Paraphrasing of cross-examination:
(Commission): Didn't you know there was a possibility of avalanches?
(O'Neill): There had been six avalanches just that week, on other parts of the mountain. So, yeah. It had crossed my mind.
(Commission): Why didn't you try to do something?
(O'Neill): I'm not going to dignify that with a response. (aside: ... you silly ass.)

Ahh. Disaster non-fiction. So good for making you grateful to be - you know - alive, and not slowly suffering under ten feet of hard-packed snow.

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