Telling the Story of the Great Boston Molasses Flood
January 14, 2009
Today's post is from Stephen Puleo, author of the critically acclaimed Boston-area bestseller Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. A former award-winning newspaper reporter and contributor to American History magazine, he holds a master's degree in history and is also the author of The Boston Italians: A Story of Pride, Perseverance, and Paesani, from the Years of the Great Immigration to the Present Day. His website is http://www.stephenpuleo.com/.
At first, the woman in front of me jumped a bit when I popped my head over the seatback and said, "Would you like me to autograph that?"
We had just taken off from Charlotte, on a connector flight from Boston to Hilton Head, and her movement had caught my eye when she pulled a copy of Dark Tide from her bag and settled in to read. When I asked the question, she glanced quickly from me to the book and back to me again, and said, "No – you're not…are you?" But there's no author's photo on the paperback, after all, so she wasn't entirely sure. I whipped out my driver's license to convince her I wasn't a stalker, and more importantly, that I was who I claimed to be. "Wow, this is great," she said. "I love the book and you're coming to speak to my book club." Of course, I responded, and named the town and date, further verifying my identity. Now we were friends. She introduced me to her husband, and after we landed, we took pictures at the airport so she could e-mail them to her book-club colleagues. When I spoke to the club a week or so later, the story of our meeting had made the rounds.
When the 90th anniversary of the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 occurs on January 15, Dark Tide will be close to celebrating its own five-and-one-half year anniversary. The blink-of-an-eye passage of time is astounding enough to me, but even more amazing (and gratifying) has been the book's continued popularity and appeal. I have been truly blessed and humbled by the chord it has struck with readers, and my book-club friend on the plane was representative of the enthusiastic response Dark Tide has generated. I have made more than 150 appearances on this book alone since its publication, and at least 40 book clubs have selected it as their choice. In the winter and spring of 2009, the Massachusetts cities of Beverly and Medford will be reading Dark Tide as part of town-wide reading programs, bringing to six the number of communities that have selected the book for this honor.
It has been my honor to present and speak to thousands of people about Dark Tide – lawyers and judges, engineers and architects, teachers and librarians, politicians and business leaders, archivists and historians, radio listeners and television viewers, and students at the college, high school, junior high, and elementary school levels. I've given numerous tours of Boston's North End, where the flood took place, and spoken in wonderfully historic and venerable places such as the Old State House and the Old South Meeting House in Boston, and the John Adams Carriage House in Quincy. I'll continue to make appearances in the coming year, beginning with the Boston Public Library on January 14, the night before the actual 90th anniversary of the flood (I remember speaking on a frigid night at Old South Meeting House to mark the 85th anniversary). At least two Boston trolley-tour companies and some of its famous "Duck Tours" now stop at the molasses flood site on the Commercial Street waterfront, and readers have sent me hundreds of e-mails sharing their comments and views on the book. Most recently, bestselling author Dennis Lehane makes reference to the molasses flood and acknowledges Dark Tide in his latest novel, The Given Day.
Most rewarding has been the number of readers who tell me they have not read nonfiction or history since high school, but that they read and thoroughly enjoyed Dark Tide. The book's narrative style, its characters, the unusual nature of the event, the intertwining of the narrative and the big-picture historical context – all of these components readers have mentioned as appealing. As one reader said, "The history goes down easy in this book – I think it's the way history should be written."
I do, too. I think building a strong foundation of primary sources (in Dark Tide, those consist of 25,000 pages of court transcript from the huge civil lawsuit that followed the flood, plus the judge's damage awards and his summary of the case) and combining it with a narrative approach helps the history come alive. In Dark Tide, it helps that almost every major issue America faced in the early 20th century – World War I and munitions production, the anarchist movement, immigration, the role of government in regulating big business – literally and directly touches the flood story. We have very lively question-and-answer sessions at my presentations as audience members explore these topics.
In fact, and I guess unsurprisingly, it's the avid reader interest and enthusiasm for Dark Tide, and the genuine affection so many have expressed, that keep me energized and excited about discussing the book more than five years after its publication.
It's also what makes it seem perfectly natural and acceptable to approach strange women on airplanes. My wife doesn't even seem to mind.