THE PERFECT STORM, INTO THIN AIR, THE WORST HARD TIME: What makes some non-fiction so suspenseful?

When we think about books that have really thrilled us in the last two decades, we think of non-fiction. We vividly remember listening to THE PERFECT STORM (pub.1997) as we drove the Merritt Parkway so enrapt we were only intermittently aware of the road or the traffic. We would have been safer texting.

What is about these books that grabs us so completely?

A lot of them involve the weather which apparently took over from the cold war as the great source of anxiety in people’s lives during the nineties. (Arguably, natural disaster books replaced the thriller during that decade when many people pronounced the genre dead. That was before this summer when the weather became seriously scary.) Way, way back when we were in local news and some major disaster occurred – the kind that inspired wall to wall coverage – it was a good bet that sooner or later a reporter would be sent out in pursuit of the answer to the question, can it happen here. We think the same kind of question is a reason these books are so thrilling. Based on real events, they beg some variation of the question: can it happen here, or can it happen now, or can it happen again.

We have recently finished reading RISING TIDE (1998) about the famous 1927 flood of the Mississippi River. (This is the same 1927 flood that the John Goodman character in Treme is writing a novel about.) We picked the book up because it is happening again – now. The flood gates of the Morganza Spillway were opened last month, inundating the Atchafalaya River Basin, much of the same area that flooded in 1927.

RISING TIDE pulls the reader along several plot lines which author John M. Barry alternates so that finding out what happened in Greenville, MI, was often delayed while we read about events in New Orleans. The book – as all these books – is full of interesting characters, often behaving badly. And we very much want to know just how low some of them can go.

Barry also teases the reader along. At the end of chapter 16, he writes: “The struggle against the river had begun as one of man against nature. It was becoming one of man against man.” At the end of Chapter 30, he says, “But a reckoning would come.” And didn’t we want to know about that struggle and what reckoning would come?

Our summer fiction break continues with drought. We are on to the dustbowl in THE WORST HARD TIME and EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON.