Book Review: A Furious Sky by Eric Jay Dolin

  • Title: A Furious Sky
  • Author: Eric Jay Dolin
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Weather, Natural Disasters
  • Where to buy : Amazon (affiliate link)
  • Would I recommend: I’d re-read it, and I don’t often re-read books. That’s how much I’d recommend it.

From Goodreads:

With A Furious Sky, best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin tells the history of America itself through its five-hundred-year battle with the fury of hurricanes.

Hurricanes menace North America from June through November every year, each as powerful as 10,000 nuclear bombs. These megastorms will likely become more intense as the planet continues to warm, yet we too often treat them as local disasters and TV spectacles, unaware of how far-ranging their impact can be. As best-selling historian Eric Jay Dolin contends, we must look to our nation’s past if we hope to comprehend the consequences of the hurricanes of the future.

With A Furious Sky, Dolin has created a vivid, sprawling account of our encounters with hurricanes, from the nameless storms that threatened Columbus’s New World voyages to the destruction wrought in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. Weaving a story of shipwrecks and devastated cities, of heroism and folly, Dolin introduces a rich cast of unlikely heroes, such as Benito Vines, a nineteenth-century Jesuit priest whose innovative methods for predicting hurricanes saved countless lives, and puts us in the middle of the most devastating storms of the past, none worse than the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which killed at least 6,000 people, the highest toll of any natural disaster in American history.

Dolin draws on a vast array of sources as he melds American history, as it is usually told, with the history of hurricanes, showing how these tempests frequently helped determine the nation’s course. Hurricanes, it turns out, prevented Spain from expanding its holdings in North America beyond Florida in the late 1500s, and they also played a key role in shifting the tide of the American Revolution against the British in the final stages of the conflict. As he moves through the centuries, following the rise of the United States despite the chaos caused by hurricanes, Dolin traces the corresponding development of hurricane science, from important discoveries made by Benjamin Franklin to the breakthroughs spurred by the necessities of the World War II and the Cold War.

Yet after centuries of study and despite remarkable leaps in scientific knowledge and technological prowess, there are still limits on our ability to predict exactly when and where hurricanes will strike, and we remain terribly vulnerable to the greatest storms on earth. A Furious Sky is, ultimately, a story of a changing climate, and it forces us to reckon with the reality that as bad as the past has been, the future will probably be worse, unless we drastically reimagine our relationship with the planet.

My thoughts:

Being from Louisiana, I’ve always been fascinated with hurricanes. My ex-husband had family living in the New Orleans area when Katrina hit in 2005, and they came and stayed with us for a while, until the waters receded. When I saw A Furious Sky on our local library shelf, I had to pick it up.

The “five hundred years” in the title may sound intimidating, but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re reading. Dolin does an excellent job reviewing historical hurricanes, going back as far as the days of Christopher Columbus. He also tracks the birth and development of hurricane meteorology and chronicles the creation and growth of the National Weather Services and its predecessor agencies.

The book is history lesson and meteorological study all wrapped up in one. Dolin’s description of the human toll that hurricanes have taken through the years is heartwrenching. Ignorance of the strength of hurricanes caused many deaths, as did government and forecasting inefficiency and the sheer stubbornness of people thinking they could ride out the storm. I also learned a lot about the involvement of various historical figures in the study of hurricanes and in relief efforts – Benjamin Franklin, Clara Barton, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few. Were I younger and choosing a career field, A Furious Sky might well have convinced me to focus my efforts on the study of hurricanes.

The book closes with a look at a handful of storms that had major impacts on the United States, Katrina among them. Many of these may be familiar to the reader. Recent events clearly show that our sky isn’t getting any less furious (just look at the 2020 hurricane season), and the epilogue considers what role global warming may play in these poweful, destructive storms.

If you’re interested in weather and history, I highly recommend this book. It was as gripping and intense as any work of fiction I’ve read this year.

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