Every Man Dies Alone: Why Resist?

I discovered the 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone in a conversation about books with a friend on the beach in Cape MayThe novel was written in the aftermath of World War II, by Hans Fallada, the pen name of a German named Rudolf Ditzen with a history of mental illness and substance abuse who spent time in mental institutions, prison, and rehab. He wrote the book in 24 days in September and October 1946, but died before it was published in 1947. In 2009, when the English translation was finally published, the book gained a whole new audience, becoming one of the New York Times “notable books of the year” in 2009.

I’ve read lots of novels set in part during World War II: All the Light We Cannot See, Life after Life, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Lilac Girls, Moon Tiger, The Girl from the Train, and The Paris Architect are a few relatively recent ones. Each of those novels portrayed some aspect of the war that I didn’t previously know much about. However, it’s been awhile since a novel has made me think and engage in self-examination as much as Every Man Dies Alone, likely because of the times we are in and the questions I ask myself regularly about how to respond to many things that are happening in the world that seem to me to be so very wrong.

Based on a true story, Every Man Dies Alone is about an ordinary German couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who resist Hitler and the Third Reich. Their act of resistance is carried out in an environment in Berlin where many ordinary citizens believed the hype that Hitler really was ushering in a new era of German greatness (making the awfulness of the war worth it); they willingly spied on and reported neighbors who acted suspiciously. Others became part of the system of oppression as police and members of the Gestapo. Still others were skeptical and privately opposed Hitler, but because they were afraid of the Gestapo, they remained silent or turned in anyone they suspected of acting against the government. Any kind of dissent was treasonous, and people were arrested, imprisoned, and executed for minor offenses.

When their only son is killed in the war, Otto and Anna are “radicalized” and begin their resistance. Otto decides to write postcards against the Hitler regime (“he needs an outlet for his rage”) and drop them surreptitiously in random places throughout Berlin, hoping they will be picked up and read by passersby who will be influenced by their message. The first postcard reads: “Mother! The Fuhrer has murdered my son! The Fuhrer will murder your sons too, he will not stop until he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.”

Anna, angry and sick with grief over the death of her son, initially says the act is too small and won’t do any good, but agrees to participate. Otto convinces her: “They all will read the card, and it will have some effect on them. Even if the only effect is to remind them that there is still resistance out there, that not everyone thinks like the Fuhrer.” Later he reflects again on the possible success of their efforts: “I’d like to be around to see it [Hitler and the Third Reich] all collapse. I would like to experience that. We’ve done our bit to make it happen.” Together, they imagine that their postcards will change minds and create a larger movement of resistance. Ultimately, after more than two years of postcarding Berlin, they are discovered and arrested, brutally interrogated, charged with treason, tried and found guilty in a farce of a trial, and sentenced to death. Otto is executed by beheading, and Anna dies later during an air raid when a bomb falls on the prison.

After his arrest, Otto is devastated when he learns that out of 285 postcards he wrote, only 18 were not turned in to the authorities. He is at first convinced that nothing good was accomplished, that their act of resistance was a complete failure. Eventually, as he languishes in prison, he comes to understand the value of his act of resistance and before he dies attains the kind of serenity that comes from knowing he did what he thought was right.

So what is the point of resisting when the act is so small and/or it stands almost no chance of being effective in the long run? Several conversations in the novel sought to answer that question and resonated with me as I ponder how and whether to resist the many things that are wrong in the world these days and often wallow in feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.

At one point, Otto and Anna’s son’s former fiancee Trudel and her husband Karl consider hiding a Jewish woman in their house. Karl says, “There’s nothing we can do,” to which she responds, “If everyone thought like that, then Hitler would stay in power forever. Someone somewhere has to make a start.” The narrator continues: “She was desperate to do something against Hitler, against the war. In principle, he was too, but it mustn’t carry any risk; he wasn’t willing to run the least danger.” I ask myself: what risks am I willing to take to do what is right?

In prison, Otto shares a cell for a time with a musician, Dr. Reichardt, who was arrested as a communist sympathizer. They talk about what Otto did with the postcards and his belief that his efforts were futile:

Otto: “They didn’t do any good!”

Dr. Reichardt: “Who can say? At least you opposed evil. You weren’t corrupted. You and I and the many locked up here, and many more in other places… – they’re all resisting, today, tomorrow…”

Otto: “Yes, and then they kill us, and what good did our resistance do?”

Dr. R.: “Well, it will have helped us to feel we behaved decently until the end.”

“Decently” seems to be another word for “with moral integrity.”

On another occasion, when another cell-mate sadistically destroys the only photograph Dr. R. has of his wife and children, Otto accuses him of being too soft because he didn’t fight the man. Dr. R. responds: “Do you want me to be like the others? They think they can convert us to their views by physical punishment. But we don’t believe in force. We believe in goodness, love, and justice.” Otto retorts: “But in life you need to be tough sometimes!”

Dr. R. responds: “No, you don’t. And a saying like that is justification for every form of brutality!” An argument for nonviolence if there ever was one.

According to German legal protocols, Otto’s defense lawyer goes through the motions of submitting a request for clemency following his death sentence, despite not having any sympathy for or understanding of what Otto did. The lawyer asks Otto, “What made you do it? Write those postcards. They didn’t accomplish anything, and now they’ll cost you your life.”

Otto replies: “Because I’m stupid. Because I didn’t have any better ideas. Because I thought they would accomplish something, as you put it.”

Lawyer: “And don’t you regret it? Aren’t you sorry to lose your life over a stupid stunt like that?”

Otto: “At least I stayed decent. I didn’t participate.” Again, that word “decent.”

Often the meaning of the title of a novel is not immediately obvious, and so when I read, I keep my eyes open for something that will explain it. In this case, the title seems to come from a conversation Otto has with Dr. Reichardt who says, “It would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us. Such and such is what we have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean we are alone, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.”

I need that encouragement and challenge right now, when I feel helpless against a barrage of what I believe are unjust, mean-spirited, self-centered, short-sighted, hypocritical, and racially-charged attitudes, actions, and policies. I want to stay decent and act with integrity, and to be able to believe that in the end decency, goodness, love, and justice will prevail.


*Disclaimer: The book, clocking in at more than 500 pages, is much more complex with many more characters than this summary and analysis would indicate. It’s a gripping story, with lots of suspense – in short a good read!


Re-Reading Obama


I first read Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, after he entered the national consciousness following his memorable speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention but before he became a candidate for president. The book was originally published in 1995, and then reissued in 2004.

At the time I read the book, speculation was beginning that Obama might run for president, and he had just been elected to the U.S. Senate. Clearly, one of the reasons the book was reissued in 2004, with a new foreword by the author, was because he had become a national figure.


Watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama with colleagues on January 20, 2009, State College, Pennsylvania

In April 2008, before the Pennsylvania primary, Dale and I went to an Obama presidential campaign rally in Harrisburg, and we both volunteered in very small ways with the Obama campaign in the fall of 2008. And on January 20, 2009, I watched the inauguration of President Barack Obama on a laptop in State College with some of my early childhood mental health colleagues. We paused during our quarterly meeting to take in this historic occasion of the first African American becoming president of the United States (see photo at right). It was an emotional moment for all of us.

Over the past 10 years of Barack Obama as a presidential candidate and then president, when false conspiracy theories about his birthplace and religious faith persisted, and criticism and obstruction of practically every single thing he ever tried to do increased, I often thought of Dreams of My Father and my observations about the book at the time I read it – before any of the craziness. So this week as the nation counted down the days until the end of the Obama presidency, I reread parts of the book. I was curious about whether my observations held up. and about what insights reading the book now might provide into the man we came to know as our president.


Me doing a thumbs-up with a cardboard cutout of Barack Obama during a trip to Washington, DC in 2010.

I remember thinking and even commenting during a book club discussion in 2006 or 2007 that I appreciated reading something written by a politician before the person became famous, entered politics, or thought he needed to measure his words and omit inconvenient details. While I think now that a career in politics may have been in his mind while he was writing the book, I honestly don’t think it greatly affected the way he told his story.

Two things in particular stood out to me when I first read the book:

  1. He does not always paint a particularly flattering picture of himself, and is very honest about his struggle to find his identity as a black man with a white mother, an absent black father, and two white grandparents who helped raise him.
  2. He describes the development of his Christian faith and the moment of his “conversion” with authenticity and conviction.

As I reread the book this week, I looked for re-affirmation of those two observations. The first – the unflattering picture of himself and his struggle to find his identity – still rings true. He writes honestly of his partying and drug and alcohol use during adolescence and college, his cockiness in certain situations (perhaps a harbinger of the self-confident way he has carried himself throughout his presidency), his lack of seriousness about his studies, the conflicts in his family, his ambivalence toward his father. He tells about reading a story in Life magazine when he was about nine years old and living in Indonesia that greatly affected his view of himself. The story was about a black man who had undergone treatment to lighten his skin. That was the first time he came face to face with what it meant to be a black man, and he noted that his “vision had been permanently altered.” He began to notice things like there being nobody in the Sears Christmas catalog that looked like him.

The struggle for his identity as a black man continued into adolescence and young adulthood. Two quotes illustrate this:

  • At around age 15: “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant” (p. 76).
  • On trying to navigate between his family of “white folks” (his mother and grandparents) and his black friends: “I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two would would eventually cohere” (p. 82).

Today, Obama seems comfortable in his own skin, and has resolved the identity issues that plagued him as a young man. But you could hear echoes of those struggles in his responses to racial issues, especially when unarmed black teenagers were killed. His comment that “Trayvon Martin could have been me” is almost literally true; in the book, he writes about how he was well on his way to becoming a “young black man” statistic, and so I can imagine that every time a young black man is gunned down, he thinks about how his life could easily have turned out if he had made different choices.

My second observation about the development of his Christian faith still rings true as well. Whenever I have heard people deny his Christian commitment or claim that he is a secret Muslim, my mind goes back to this book. Obama writes about his grandparents and mother not having much religious faith and he mentions his father’s Muslim faith, but he claims no belief for himself until something changed during the years he was a community organizer in Chicago before he went to law school. He wasn’t making much progress in his efforts in the community until he hooked up with local churches. There he learned to know people whose Christian faith motivated them to work on behalf of justice and whose hope was found in Jesus. He writes of a Sunday morning service not long before he left for law school at Harvard. The title of the sermon was “The Audacity of Hope,” and the preacher spoke eloquently of how even in the midst of adversity, his grandmother would be singing, “Thank you Jesus,” and “thanking [God] in advance for all that they dared to hope for in me! Oh, I thank you, Jesus, for not letting go of me when I let go of you!”

Obama then writes that while the choir was singing and people were walking to the altar in response to the sermon, he found himself with tears running down his cheeks. Beside him, he heard a woman whisper softly, “Oh, Jesus. Thank you for carrying us this far.” That section of the book ends there, but the clear implication is that something profound happened to Obama at that moment, the culmination of spending time daily with people of faith. I choose to believe he came to personal faith that day and has been a Christian in the real sense of the word ever since.

At the first National Prayer Breakfast after his inauguration in February 2009, he told a version of this story. After noting that he wasn’t raised in a religious household, he continued: “I didn’t become a Christian until many years later, when I moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck — no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God’s spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose — His purpose.” His words rang true then and they still do.

Significantly, the preacher’s sermon title, “The Audacity of Hope,” became the title of Obama’s next book, published after he became a U.S. Senator, and hope was one of the major themes of his first presidential campaign. The theme was echoed in his farewell address last week: “I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.” And it was echoed this week in the answer to the final question at his final press conference: “We’ve tried to teach them [his daughters] hope and that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world…. I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad. I believe tragic things happen. I think there’s evil in the world, but I think at the end of the day, if we work hard and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time. That’s what this presidency has tried to be about.”

I have not always agreed with President Obama; I’ve wished he had done some things differently or not at all. For example, he does not seem to be as committed as I would like to the kind of peacemaking that does not see violent responses to evil as justified, and at times he was infuriatingly passive when it felt like he needed to be far more active. But I’ve also supported many of his accomplishments: the Affordable Care Act, actions to reverse climate change and protect the environment, normalized relations with Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and criminal justice reform, to name a few. Apart from his policies, I have always felt like I could respect him as a person, a husband, and a father, and I have deeply appreciated the dignity, grace, and civility with which he has conducted himself amidst a never-ending barrage of ugliness and negativity. The fact that he is being succeeded by someone who is the polar opposite and who has made promises to undo much if not most of what he has accomplished is hard to take, to say the least.

As President Obama leaves office, I need a dose of his optimism and his reminder that “the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.” I began to understand some of what makes him tick when I first read Dreams from My Father, and it’s been encouraging to discover upon re-reading the book that his presidency was built in positive ways on what he learned and experienced as a child, teenager, and young adult. The person I met in those pages is consistent with the president I admired and respected. I will miss him!

A Thanksgiving Post About Writing and Books

Rather than take the usual route of expressing my gratitude during this Thanksgiving season for family, friends, health, enough food, a comfortable home, meaningful work, and so on (all of which I am thankful for, in case anybody wonders), this year I would like to thank those whose written words have challenged and inspired me. As something of a writer myself, I confess to being just a little bit jealous of people who are able to use the English language with great skill, spin carefully crafted stories that keep me in suspense, teach me history while I’m reading a great story, help me think through difficult issues, articulate points of view with clarity, conviction and compassion, and help me laugh at myself and the often absurd world in which we live. Beyond the jealousy, however, I am grateful for them.

I thought about this last week when Dale and I went to hear Anne Lamott speak at a stop on her tour to promote her new book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Anne has been one of my favorite writers ever since someone pointed me in the direction of her columns at Salon.com many years ago. I loved her irreverent and honest take on Christian faith – her ability to say what many of us think and feel but either wouldn’t have the courage to say or wouldn’t be able to say half as well, along with her willingness to be brutally honest and vulnerable about her struggles in life and in faith. I soon discovered her books of essays on faith, such as Traveling Mercies. She writes fiction (which I don’t like as well), and she’s written honest and very funny “memoirs” about the first year of her son’s life and the birth of her grandson (co-written with her son). One of my favorite books about writing is Bird by Bird, her book of “instructions on writing and life.” I am thankful for people like Anne who write about faith and ordinary life in ways that make me say, “Yes, that’s exactly how it is. That’s just the way I feel. I wish I’d said that!”

In my dreams, I have sometimes been writing my version of the proverbial “Great American Novel,” but it’s never going to get beyond the dream stage because I’m quite sure I don’t have it in me to write good fiction. That becomes clearer to me every time I read another particularly well-written piece of fiction, such as two novels I read the past several weeks. I am in awe of the way Donna Tartt in The Goldfinch is able to write convincingly from the point of view of an adolescent and then young adult male, how she crafts a suspenseful story that keeps the reader thoroughly engaged while also exploring such difficult and wildly diverse issues as post-traumatic stress disorder and the underworld of fine art theft. (OK, so the book got a little long, but who’s counting pages?!) I love Alice McDermott’s simple but eloquent use of language in her portrayal in Someone of the ordinary life of a woman who isn’t famous or accomplished in the traditional way we think of those qualities but who is “someone” special to those who care about her.

Good fiction, besides telling great stories and introducing us to memorable characters, also instructs and teaches history. From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian writer of Americanah, I learned how African immigrants in America often view race issues, how life is different for them as blacks than for African Americans who have lived here for generations. Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings tells a story of slavery from the point of view of a slave and her owner, one of the real Grimke sisters from South Carolina who eventually joined the abolitionist movement. Marisa Silver’s Mary Coin artfully uses a real photograph taken during the Great Depression to imagine the story of the woman in the photograph. Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders revives a true story of heroism from the time of the Great Plague in 17th century England by putting us in the mind of one woman who lived through it. Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage may be one of the most horrific novels I’ve ever read, but it was also one of the best. The subject matter – life inside a Burmese prison where torture was routine – was painfully difficult to read, but the novel was beautifully written and taught me much about not only conditions in Burma/Myanmar in the early 1990s but also how one individual can choose to transcend the unspeakable cruelty that others inflict on him and still show kindness to others.

I’m certainly grateful for writers of good fiction, but I’m also grateful for those who do painstaking research to shed light on an issue or a particular time in history, or who tell their own or their family’s stories. I think of Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which she wrote after three years of interviewing people who lived in the Annawadi slum on the outskirts of the Mumbai airport. Or the New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, which describes in excruciating detail the way the criminal justice system has been structured to lock millions of African Americans behind bars and turn them into second-class citizens for the rest of their lives. Or To End All Wars, by Adam Hochschild, which describes a senseless war if there ever was one (World War I) and those who fought it and resisted it. Or Sonia Nazario’s account in Enrique’s Journey of a Honduran boy who braved incredible danger to follow his mother to the United States – a book that has particular relevance and poignance in the midst of the current debate about immigration reform. Or Kimi Grant Cunningham’s story in Silver Like Dust of her Japanese grandparents’ internment in a camp during World War II, shedding light on a particularly shameful part of our history.

This wouldn’t be complete without mention of all those who write thoughtful and articulate pieces on current issues, who challenge my thinking, and who remain respectful and kind even when mean-spiritedness and divisiveness seem to rule the day. Some of them I know personally and some I’ve come to know by reading their columns or blogs. Thank you! And then there all those individuals who have responded to my requests to write for the various publications I’ve edited over the years and who have graciously submitted themselves to my editorial pen. I’m even thankful after the fact for some who took issue with what I did to their writing because they helped me learn how to build good working relationships and become a better editor.

I couldn’t wait to learn how to read when I was a child, and I have been reading ever since. I can’t imagine life without books and writing. Reading has enriched my life in so many ways, and has definitely made me a better writer and editor. While my writing doesn’t begin to compare to that of the writers I’ve mentioned above, I learn from them, and occasionally some of what I learn actually makes its way into what I write. So this Thanksgiving, I say thank you to all the wonderful writers whose work I’ve already read and whose books and articles I’ve yet to discover.




Recommended Reading: Two African Novels

Once again my book clubs have introduced me to books I may not have found otherwise – two more to add to my growing collection of African novels.

Book coverHalf of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is about the civil war in Nigeria in the late 1960s, something I knew next to nothing about. Before reading this novel, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the only mental image I had of “Biafra” was of starving children. If you’re like me and know next to nothing about Biafra, here’s some background from Wikipedia: “Biafra, officially the Republic of Biafra, was a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970, taking its name from the Bight of Biafra (the Atlantic bay to its south). The inhabitants were mostly the Igbo people who led the secession due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. The creation of the new state that was pushing for recognition was among the causes of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War.” I had no clue about the war, and certainly not from the perspective of those who were on the minority Biafran side, so this book was educational in addition to being a good story.

When I think about where I was and what I was doing from 1967-1970, I suppose it’s at least a little understandable that I didn’t know much about Biafra. I was in college and graduate school at the time; I didn’t have TV and I didn’t listen to NPR in those days (actually, NPR was incorporated in February 1970, after the Biafran War was already over), so my knowledge of world events beyond the Vietnam War was fairly limited. That feels like a poor excuse, however, for my ignorance!

In Half of a Yellow Sun, the story of Biafra is told from the point of view of five characters (all Igbo except one): Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy; Odenigbo, a university professor and revolutionary; Olanna, the professor’s mistress; Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene; and Richard, an Englishman infatuated with Kainene. As you might imagine, the war was horrific, and yes, to explain why my only mental image of Biafra is of starving children, there was widespread hunger and deprivation because of the war.

Perhaps the most haunting sentence in the book is this one, which is also the title of a book about the war written by one of the characters: “The world was silent while we died.” During the war, the citizens of the breakaway country of Biafra struggled to gain recognition from other countries, and it didn’t seem like the rest of the world cared very much that thousands of people were suffering and dying in this little tiny country with few resources but lots of pride. I couldn’t help thinking of other times when it has seemed like “the world was silent”: Rwanda, Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Syria…and the list could probably go on. What is our responsibility in situations like this? What can and should we do? I honestly don’t know.

Front CoverThe second African novel I read recently is Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I was much more familiar with the setting and issues in this book because it takes place in colonial Rhodesia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is after I left Rhodesia in 1961 and after Ian Smith declared unilateral independence from Great Britain in 1965, but before the height of the war that resulted in majority black rule and the change of name to Zimbabwe in 1980. Nervous Conditions has been described as one of the best African novels, and is the first by a black Zimbabwean to be published in English outside the country.

The story is told from the point of view of Tambu, a young girl who leaves her rural village to go to the mission school run by her wealthy, British-educated uncle. The book explores coming of age, gender and identity issues. The title refers to the sense of displacement and feelings of ambivalence that come with being a native in a colonial system – everyone in the novel has a “nervous condition.”

There was a lot for me to identify with in this book. It takes places at a time that was not all that far removed from when I lived in Rhodesia. In many ways, the story felt like my story being told from the opposite point of view. As a missionary kid, however, I saw the world I lived in from the point of view of missionaries who believed they were doing a good and right thing – not only by bringing the good news of the gospel to the native people but also by improving their lives with education and medical care. These were good things, but it never occurred to me to think about how the missionaries and other white settlers also disrupted life and created a whole new set of of challenges for the native people. The novel shows the work of missionaries and colonialism from the other side, and how education and white people changed things irrevocably. I appreciated this perspective which is different than the one I grew up with.

The effects of education, westernization and money are explored, along with the loss of traditional values. There is also a loss of language and culture, and distrust of the new culture that seems to be taking over. Family dynamics change when some are able to receive an education and others don’t, when some have wealth and opportunity and others don’t, when those with wealth and advantage are expected to share with and take care of those who don’t. The “nervous condition” of Tambu is clear as she desperately wants an education and forsakes her village and family to get it, even as she critiques her more worldly-wise cousin for her inability to speak the native language anymore and her rebellious attitude toward her parents, especially her father. The cousin’s own “nervous condition” has tragic results when she suffers from an eating disorder that eventually requires professional help to save her life. Interestingly, there are no significant white characters with unique personalities in the book, even though so much of life is controlled by whites. This is Tambu’s story, or as she puts it in the opening paragraph, a story of escape, entrapment and rebellion, told in a fairly introspective style.

There’s so much more to both books that I haven’t mentioned, so you’ll just have to read them if you want to know more!



Anatomy of a Disaster

In 1975, when Dale and I were house-hunting, one of our most important criteria was that the house not be in a flood plain. The memories of the devastation caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972 were still fresh enough that we didn’t want to knowingly run the risk of being flooded. One house we looked at was on Water Street in Lemoyne, just a couple blocks from the Susquehanna River. The street name itself was ominous, but then we learned that during Agnes the water had risen about 3-4 feet on the first floor! We felt completely vindicated for not giving that house a second look when in 1975 soon after we moved into the Hill section of Harrisburg (emphasis on the HILL), Hurricane Eloise flooded the river again. In later years after we had moved out of the city, I worked in an office complex on Front Street in Harrisburg. Twice during those years – in 1996 and 2011 – the office was closed because of flooding from the river.

This table of historical floods in Harrisburg lists 48 times since 1786 when the Susquehanna River has crested higher than 17 feet, the official flood stage. The worst flood was in 1972, which surpassed the 1936 flood everyone used to talk about before Agnes, which in turn was worse than the third-ranked flood on June 2, 1889.

johnstownfloodThat third-worst flood in Harrisburg happened as part of the same massive spring storm system that caused what was the worst natural disaster in the United States to date – the Johnstown Flood on May 31, 1889, just 140 miles west of Harrisburg. Actually, it could be debated whether the wet spring and heavy rains in late May really caused the Johnstown Flood, or whether it was the failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River upstream from Johnstown that was responsible for the devastation. And therein lies the story eminent historian David McCullough tells in his first book, The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating Disasters America Has Ever Known, published in 1968.

This is another of those books I probably wouldn’t have read had it not been a book club selection, but I’m very glad I did. As a resident of Pennsylvania, I’ve heard about the Johnstown Flood for years but never knew much about it. In addition to learning an important piece of Pennsylvania history, I couldn’t help noting parallels of the Johnstown Flood with more recent natural disasters.

1. The cause. The heavy rain would have caused flooding of nearby rivers and creeks even if the dam had not collapsed, but the rain by itself would not have practically wiped out the city of Johnstown. The dam had been built to create a lake solely for the recreational use of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive resort owned primarily by wealthy entrepreneurs from Pittsburgh (think of names like Carnegie and Mellon). When the dam was rebuilt some years before, it had been constructed entirely of earth and not checked thoroughly for its ability to withstand major pressure should the lake rise quickly. After the flood, the collapse of the dam was the subject of a major investigation. The findings were blunt: “Our information is positive, direct, and unimpeachable that at no time during the process of rebuilding the dam was ANY ENGINEER WHATEVER, young or old, good or bad, known or unknown, engaged or consulted as to the work. . . .” (p. 247).

I couldn’t help thinking about Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the levees broke and created even more devastation and death than would have been the case just from the storm. At the time, it was determined that some of the levees had been poorly designed. And of course, every time another hurricane hits the east coast and destroys homes and business built just a few feet from the ocean, there are questions about whether 1) it was wise to build there in the first place, and 2) everything should be rebuilt when there is a strong possibility of another hurricane.

2. Disaster as punishment from God. Natural disasters inevitably seem to invite analysis as to whether they were caused by some sin (or sins) for which God has called down judgment. Many will remember comments like this in the wake of Katrina: “Katrina was an act of God upon a sin-loving and rebellious nation, a warning to all who foolishly and arrogantly believe there is no God, and that if He did exist, ‘would not have done such a thing!’ It is also a serious call to repent, to turn away from our wicked ways, from the heart of a loving Father” (David Crowe). Similarly, the Johnstown Flood was portrayed by preachers as “a sign unto all men, . . . and woe until the land if it were not heeded. The steel town had been a sin town and so the Lord had destroyed it; for surely only a vile and wicked place would have been visited by so hideous a calamity” (p. 252). For the record, I’m really uncomfortable with the view that God rains down judgment in this way.

3. Press coverage. In these days of a constant barrage of media coverage of any significant (even insignifcant!) and/or dramatic event, it is easy to think that this is a relatively new phenomenon and is so much more comprehensive and all-consuming now than in the past. Reading McCullough’s book made me realize that even though there is a vast difference in communications technology between 1889 and 2013, the rush to get the latest news about a disaster is no greater now than it was then. In 1889, the “press” consisted primarily of newspapers, and hundreds of newspaper reporters from all over the country descended on Johnstown in the days following the flood. Everyone was looking for an angle or a dramatic story – so much so that reporters sometimes made up stories or embellished the facts to beat their competition. McCullough’s description paints a picture of something like the 1889 version of today’s 24/7 cable news shows. Multiple editions of newspapers were printed each day, blaring huge headlines on the front page; people lined up to wait for the newest edition, and papers were sold out almost as soon as they hit the streets.

4. Generous response. In response to the Johnstown Flood, the equivalent in today’s dollars of $179 million was contributed to help the survivors: “the enormous sympathy aroused by the newspaper accounts, . . . brought on the greatest outpouring of popular charity the country had ever seen” (p. 224). McCullough gives lots of fascinating details about the material resources that were contributed: potatoes from Walla Walla, ham from Cincinnati, bread baked by prisoners at the Western Penitentiary, donations from all over of “cots, mattresses, hair combs, pipes, pillows, teakettles, tents, cookstoves, and more than 7,000 pairs of shoes” (pp. 225-226). Small and large contributions came: pennies from children, to thousands of dollars from foreign countries and wealthy individuals. There were benefit concerts and exhibition fights to raise money. The generous response from ordinary people to the Johnstown Flood has been repeated many times in the years since each time there is a new natural disaster.

Clara Barton and doctors and nurses from the newly organized American Red Cross also came; Clara stayed five months. Obviously, this was a harbinger of the way the Red Cross continues to mobilize locally and nationally whenever there is an emergency or a disaster. And it makes me want to give a shout-out to one of the best disaster response agencies I know, small though it is. Mennonite Disaster Service has developed a reputation since its founding in 1950 for spending months and even years in communities affected by a natural disaster helping to clean up, repair and rebuild homes and developing caring and supportive relationships with the people they serve.

The Johnstown Flood was incredible and devastating, and McCullough tells its story well. It remains the fourth worst natural disaster in U.S. history in terms of lives lost (the top three are the tropical cyclone in Galveston, Texas in 1900; San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906; and a tropical cyclone in Florida and Puerto Rico in 1928). While it was difficult to identify and document everyone who died in the flood, the official record says that 2,209 were lost. The Johnstown Flood was indeed, as McCullough’s subtitle says, “one of the most devastating disasters America has ever seen.”