Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Book Review: 1906

I have a personal connection to the earthquake and subsequent fire that devastated San Francisco in 1906. My maternal grandfather's house and his uncle's butcher shop where he worked burned down, forcing his family to move out to the "country," now known as Noe Valley. My maternal grandmother lived out there and they met. I'm not sure how, exactly, but my mother had an abundance of auburn hair (and came from a large, Irish Catholic family) and she caught the eye of the quiet and reserved German Lutheran butcher.

So when I saw a book titled 1906, with a picture of a burning building, well, I had to buy it. And since April 18 this year was the 100th Anniversary, I thought it quite appropriate reading material.

The author, James Dalessandro, is based in San Francisco, and used archives in the San Francisco City Museum as his source material. Many of these archives expose the depth of the greed and corruption of City Hall and Boss Reuf's gang of cronies. Decisions made by Mayor Eugene Schmitz and U.S. Army General Fredrick Funston, based at the Presidio, exacerbated the problem. In fact, their decisions helped spread the fire. And when the book discusses the effects of the earthquake and how the fire spread through the City, the story leaps to life and I raced through the pages.

Unfortunately, that's only the last third of the book.

The heroine, Annalisa Passarelli, is the opera and society editor at Fremont Older's Bulletin. Her personal heroine is Nellie Bly and Annalisa aspires to be a real investigative reporter, leading Annalisa to work undercover and supply information about "Adam Rolf" (standing in for real life San Francisco Boss, Abe Reuf) to Dectective Byron Fallon. She knows Lt. Fallon because she grew up down the street from the Fallon family and he became her surrogate father when her parents returned to Italy and died of influenza during an epidemic.

Lt. Fallon also has two sons: a Stanford-educated engineer son, Hunter, who is young and handsome, and an older son, Christian, who is tormented by nightmares of a the city going up in flames. Christian does not share his nightmare with anybody, instead drinking to tame them.

Would an Italian immigrant mother in 1906 name her sons "Hunter" and "Christian"? Would Irish immigrant parents name their son Byron?

Byron and Christian belong to The Brotherhood, a group of honest police officers who are doing their best to bring down the corrupt Schmitz, Rolf, and the Chief of Police, Donen. They are all related, which wasn't unusual in San Francisco, at least through the 1970's. Hunter joins the police department and becomes a member of The Brotherhood himself.

Byron ends up getting killed on his way across the Bay to Sausalito while bearing incriminating evidence against Rolf. Which means The Brotherhood has to find his killer and find the missing papers before Rolf does and get them to Federal Proscutor Charles Feeney. Annalisa has to act as though nothing is odd while going to the opera to hear Enrico Caruso with Adam Rolf and avoid his unwanted attentions.

Meanwhile, Kaitlin Staley, from Lawrence, KS, happens into town. Her father, who is the sheriff in Lawrence, follows her and ends up being the bodyguard for Caruso. Would a sheriff from Kansas name his daughter Kaitlin in 1906? Would he have studied Latin (he's a graduate of the university in Lawrence) and be able to understand Caruso's Neopolitan accented Italian?

Anything is possible in this book.

The characters race from the Barbary Coast to South of the Slot to Telegraph Hill to Nob Hill to Van Ness Avenue to Chinatown and to North Beach. In terms of square miles, it really isn't far, but DD#2 and I did a similar trek last year, on foot, with no panicked citizens or animals or rubble blocking our way. We walked for about eight hours at a leisurely pace; these folks were running!

Okay, there's always the effects of adrenaline on the body.

But what really got me was the extraneous, modern comments the characters made. Annalisa's father taught her to sail, not because it was a good idea and they lived by the Bay, but because there was no reason a girl couldn't do anything her brothers could do. (Curiously, Annalisa's brothers don't play any role in the story.) Hunter's mother (an Italian immigrant) wanted to do two things in her life: hear Caruso in person and vote. Vote???

Hunter figures out how to tap Mr. Rolf's phone line and record it on a gramaphone cylinder. Hunter just happened to be part of the engineering team from Stanford University who surveyed the City's water lines for Fire Chief Dennis Sullivan. Chief Sullivan had, in fact, tried to convince the City Government to make changes to the water system as San Francisco had burned to the ground six times previously, including after the earthquake in 1868. He also had a disaster plan all worked out. Unfortunately, his home was damaged during the earthquake and he fell three stories through the floor while going to the aid of his wife. He lingered in a coma for four days before dying.

Of course, Hunter finds the plans but cannot convince Mayor Schmitz to follow it.

Oh, yeah. Hunter also wants to build a bridge across the Golden Gate.

One kind of quirky note: at one point anything mobile is comandeered by the Army to move injured people to the Presidio. There is a brief cameo by Charles Howard who owns a fledging Buick dealership on Van Ness Avenue. He is a real person--he later owned Seabiscuit and this incident is mentioned in the book of the same name by Laura Hildenbrand.

The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 was exciting and terrifying and disastrous. For years, the truth was suppressed about how much damage the earthquake did, how the decisions made by General Funston spread the fire, how many people died, how much was lost. The brand new, nearly completed City Hall was, in fact, destroyed--not just because of the earthquake but because of corruption in the awarding of the construction contracts and the use of inferior materials by the contractors. This novel does a pretty good job of exposing the dark underside of San Francisco society and politics as it was in April 1906. Mr. Dalessandro really didn't need to "modernize" his characters. Unfortunately, Annalisa and Hunter never came alive for me--Christian, with all his faults and his unrepentant solution to problems (shoot or beat up) seems much more real.

Mr. Dalessandro did another detail right, however: the web of family relationships in San Francisco. The Irish, the Italians, the Germans did mix and most of us who have families in San Francisco have cousins with various last names. (My mother, whose last name was German, has a cousin whose last name is Polish. They're related through their Irish mothers.)

This is not a "great" novel, but the history is not as skewed as The DaVinci Code. If you're curious about what it might have been like to live in San Francisco in 1906 and to live through the chaos of the earthquake and fire, you'd probably enjoy this book. (The book did make me appreciate that I am living here now instead of then!)

On the March Hare scale: 2.5 out of 5 bookmarks