Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City

Atlantic Monthly. Oct. 2020. 400p. ISBN 9780802148100. $28. HIST
Historian Smith (emeritus, history, Northwestern Univ; The Plan of Chicago) fully researches and examines the Great Chicago Fire, which spanned three days in October 1871. Surprisingly, this is the first popular history book on the subject of the fire. Smith’s well-written narrative not only examines the fire itself, but also the rise of the city of Chicago and how it was forced to rebuild after the blaze tore through its neighborhoods. With accessible writing, Smith tells the story of the disaster through various individuals who lived in and around the city. The book dives into the intrigue surrounding city officials, who received warnings from those who recognized that the city’s poor engineering would mean a fire not only possible, but actually likely to occur. Smith also includes many maps of Chicago neighborhoods before and after the fire, portraits of people involved in local government, and pictures of buildings and landscapes that were forever changed.
VERDICT Stunningly well-researched, this book fully examines a pivotal moment in Chicago’s history. Readers of Smith’s other Chicago-based books will find this fascinating. Fans of Erik Larson, American history, and the triumph of the human spirit will also greatly enjoy..
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