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Review: "The Johnstown Flood," by David McCullough


This book is, again, a consummate masterpiece by the American dean of historical non-fiction. I have read many books by McCullough and my hope is that he lives to be 125 so he can continue to write exceptional history combined with a storytelling skill that frames facts into an entirety, a deliverance of the reader into the story. I cannot emphasize this enough. Whenever I read a McCullough book I find myself grabbing the nearest person to tell them about the facts, the details, the human aspect of the story. I cannot stop reading and I cannot stop talking about it. All Americans have a dim recollection of having heard about "The Johnstown Flood". It almost exists as a piece of historical Americana. Yeah. The Johnstown Flood. Pennsylvania. Let me correct that. No, we no nothing of the Flood and perhaps history serves us poorly by allowing us to forget our shared lore, but that is how it is with many past facts. Time has a way of absorbing history. All experiences fade into vague memory. No one who lived through the Flood has been alive for decades. First person accounts were written down, buried in the shelves of libraries and occasionally dusted. That is what makes McCullough's books so intensely readable as well as being informative. If I were to conduct a college level class on non-fiction writing, it would be possible to base the entire course on McCullough's books, both research- based and style. I have not mentioned the pure horror, tragedy, death and sheer magnitude that the story brings to life. A modern movie based on the Johnstown Flood would be incredible and with the ability to bring new visuals to the screen through the use of CGI would allow the viewer to almost participate in the experience. There is a scene that I cannot remove from my mind. A 60 foot high stone railroad bridge in Johnstown held against the rushing onslaught of water at the southern end of town. When the tsunami of water hit the bridge it carried with it mud, debris, trees, houses, hundreds of people, both living and dead, and it rammed into the trestle causing a gigantic dam that the water continued to crush as the flood continued. Then it lit on fire. Gigantic billows of flame burned the debris even through the cascading water. Screaming filled the valley as living people trapped in the wall of flame could not be saved by those who had escaped to the nearby hillside. Hell on earth. Once again, McCullough never fails. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is truly a wonder, commensurate with the terrible cataclysm of the Flood that the author renders understandable to us all, at the same time he leaves us in awe and sadness.