266 pages, b/w illustrations
While tornadoes have occasionally been spotted elsewhere, only the central plains of North America have the perfect conditions for their creation. For the early settlers the sight of a funnel cloud was an unearthly event. They called it the "Storm King," and their descriptions bordered on the supernatural: it glowed green or red, it whistled or moaned or sang. In Storm Kings, Lee Sandlin explores America's fascination with and unique relationship to tornadoes. From Ben Franklin's early experiments to the "great storm war" of the nineteenth century to heartland life in the early twentieth century, Sandlin re-creates with vivid descriptions some of the most devastating storms in America's history, including the Tri-state Tornado of 1925 and the Peshtigo "fire tornado," whose deadly path of destruction was left encased in glass.
Drawing on memoirs, letters, eyewitness testimonies, and archives, Sandlin brings to life the forgotten characters and scientists who changed a nation – including James Espy, America's first meteorologist, and Colonel John Park Finley, who helped place a network of weather "spotters" across the country. Along the way, Sandlin details the little-known but fascinating history of the National Weather Service, paints a vivid picture of the early Midwest, and shows how successive generations came to understand, and finally coexist with, the spiraling menace that could erase lives and whole towns in an instant.
"Even readers who live far from Tornado Alley will appreciate Mr. Sandlin's amiable style, his wide-ranging, infectious curiosity and the light he sheds on these most American of all storms."
– The Wall Street Journal
"A lively and entertaining account with, as befits its subject, dark undertones [...] [Sandlin] follows the [tornado] from Franklin and his kite across two centuries of spotters and chasers to the Japanese-born scientist Tetsuya Fujita, who, schooled on the ruins of Nagasaki, invented the rough calibration system evoked by every TV weather forecaster: the Fujita Scale [...] All this Sandlin spices – if any spice were needed – with hair-raising accounts of famous disasters: the hellish 1879 double tornado of Irving, Kan.; the Tri-State tornado that in 1925 plowed a 219-mile furrow across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, leaving almost 700 dead; the April 1974 upper Midwestern super-outbreak, the worst single tornado event in American history. But the bureaucratic and the political here out-storm the meteorological, at times making our dispute over global warming seem like a polite conversation. The lesson is as clear as one of those still spring mornings when the air is charged with humidity, and as menacing: When science and politics mix it up, invariably the loser is science. And the rest of us."
– Dallas Morning News
"The awe and terror that American weather inspired in early settlers is one of the most compelling motifs of Lee Sandlin's compulsively readable Storm Kings [...] Like much of the history of science, the story of this quest is rich with controversy [...] Sandlin's book is not simply a historical text about a problem that has been solved by technology; rather, it is a cautionary tale about the frequently unpredictable role that weather continues to play in our lives."
– Christian Science Monitor
"A fascinating look at all things tornado [...] Sandlin delves into intense detail giving us wonderful accounts of the history of the National Weather Service, the 18th and early 19th century scientists [...] an enjoyable book that will change the way we look at these extreme funnel clouds in the future."
– Northwest Indiana Times
"Storm Kings is not merely a theoretical or data-driven history of tornados and meteorology. Using his skills as a brilliant storyteller, Lee Sandlin places the reader in the middle of a storm, where he becomes an eyewitness to the helplessness, fear, destruction, and psychological aftermath of tornados [...] Lee Sandlin uses the old song about "ghost riders in the sky" as a metaphor for today's amateur storm chasers who continue in the tradition of James Espy and John Park Finley. Professionals and amateurs alike continue their quest – thundering onward across the endless skies [...] The author takes us along for the ride. Readers will definitely feel its gale force."
– New York Journal of Books
"I have been a meteorologist interested in tornadoes for my entire career [...] I found Storm Kings a compelling history."
– Chuck Doswell, Nature
"[Storm Kings] examines not only the science behind the mysterious twisters but also takes readers through some extremely compelling stories of rival scientists in the new field of meteorology [...] The real stars of the book are the storms themselves. To read of them is harrowing: entire towns destroyed, bridges torn apart and raised into the sky, wakes of destruction hundreds of yards wide and hundreds of miles long."
– The Chicago Reader
"Sandlin deftly synthesizes and illuminates the duality of his title – both the tornado itself, which early settlers in America referred to as "the Storm King"; and the individuals who made it their life's work to document, predict, and better understand those despots of the plains. Legendary storms roil throughout the text, from the funnel of fire – or as one eyewitness (whose eyeballs were consequently seared) described it, "the finger of God" – that destroyed Peshtigo, Wis., in 1871, scorching over a million acres and killing 1,500 people, to the Tristate Tornado of 1925, which rampaged for 219 miles across parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana [...] Sandlin makes talking about the weather much more than a conversational nicety – he makes it come brilliantly to life."
– Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Sandlin offers a lively account of early investigators who, through both "grinding stupidity and unaccountable insights," eventually came to understand and learned to coexist with – but never tame – the furious force of tornadoes [...] [A] well-constructed history of the politics and personalities of weather."
"If the vast majority of climate scientists are right, the weather is going to become an increasingly important, and threatening, feature of our daily lives. Lee Sandlin's new book is a riveting history of our relationship with the funnel clouds of the Midwest. This is a story we need to know, and Sandlin tells it with uncommon grace and style."
– Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Founding Brothers and the upcoming Revolutionary Summer
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Lee Sandlin is the author of Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild and reviews books for The Wall Street Journal. His essay “Losing the War” was included in the anthology The New Kings of Nonfiction. He lives in Chicago.