Originally created 09/14/03

Some new books are real 'disasters'



New dangers lurk on America's bookshelves, with a hurricane, fire and flood lying in wait for the unwary reader.

Fear not, however. Actual disasters aren't at hand - only new nonfiction books about them.

Accounts of three famous catastrophes of 20th-century America - the Northeast hurricane of 1938, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 and the molasses flood that struck (and stuck) Boston in 1919 - join novels by John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks and Terry Brooks on the roster of new hardcover books.

On Sept. 21, 1938, the fastest-moving hurricane on record zoomed along the East Coast from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Canada in only one day, striking hardest in seven Northeast states. R.A. Scotti describes that anonymous storm - the custom of naming hurricanes hadn't begun yet - in Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 (Little, Brown). Newspaper stories, photos and eyewitness testimony help tell the tale of the storm whose winds of up to 188 mph and walls of water 50 feet high caused $4.7 billion in damage (in current dollars) and killed 682 people.

The death toll was 146 in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911. But, as David von Drehle points out in Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (Atlantic Monthly Press), this deadly conflagration sparked some positive events. It exposed the dangerous working conditions in sweatshops, and inspired changes on the labor and political fronts. The book looks at the wave of Jewish and Italian immigrants during the century's early years who supplied garment factories with cheap, mostly female, labor; and the ensuing trial, which acquitted the factory owners despite their failure to provide fire-safety measures.

Jan. 15, 1919, was a gooey day in Boston's North End. Shortly after noon, a 50-foot steel tank collapsed, unleashing its contents - 2.3 million gallons of molasses. In Dark Tide (Beacon Press), which claims to be the first book on the subject, Stephen Puleo describes the sticky stuff's stroll through Boston's streets, reaching speeds of 35 mph and waves 15 feet high. In the end, 21 people were killed and 150 injured, and the entire waterfront was destroyed. Mr. Puleo cites fire department files, newspaper accounts and court records as he describes the chain of events that led to the spill and the long legal action that followed.

In a departure from his popular legal thrillers, Mr. Grisham offers Bleachers (Doubleday), a novella about the importance of high school football in small-town America. Messina's team, the Spartans, have been winners for years and the center of the town's social life and pride. As revered coach Eddie Rake lies dying, several former players have returned to keep vigil in the football field's bleachers, where they share memories, anecdotes and a couple of beers as they wait for the field lights to dim - the signal that Rake has died.

In his eighth novel, The Wedding (Warner), Mr. Sparks offers a follow-up to his best-selling first novel, The Notebook (1996). Set in New Bern, N.C., The Wedding focuses on Wilson Lewis, a lawyer whose workaholism has damaged his 30-year marriage to the point where his wife, Jane, considers leaving him. Following the advice of Noah, his happily married father-in-law featured in The Notebook, Wilson tries to win back Jane by courting her again.

Further adventures await followers of Mr. Brooks' long-running Shannara fantasy series in High Druid of Shannara: Jarka Ruus (Del Rey). This first book in a planned trilogy picks up 20 years after the previous trilogy, Voyage of the Jerle Shannara, ended. Grianne Ohmsford has denounced her life as the tyrannical Ilse Witch and become the High Druid of Shannara, dedicated to protecting the Four Lands from anarchy and war. She still has enemies, though, and when she is kidnapped, it's up to her teenage nephew and his companions to rescue her.