Storm Kings: The Untold History of America’s First Tornado Chasers

Lee Sandlin, Author
Lee Sandlin. Pantheon, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-307-37852-1
Paperback - 266 pages - 978-0-307-47358-5
Open Ebook - 226 pages - 978-0-307-90816-2
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James Espy, the first meteorologist in America, thought of tornadoes as “rapidly rising column[s] of air” that operated according to the laws of steam power, pumping warm air into cold; his lifelong rival, William Redfield, maintained that the storms were “gigantic whirlwind[s], spinning around a moving center like a top.” Though they were essentially espousing “two halves of the same process,” they were never able to reconcile their differences and find common ground. Sandlin, however, deftly synthesizes and illuminates the duality of his title—both the tornado itself, which early settlers in America referred to as “the Storm King”; and the individuals who made it their life’s work to document, predict, and better understand those despots of the plains. Legendary storms roil throughout the text, from the funnel of fire—or as one eyewitness (whose eyeballs were consequently seared) described it, “the finger of God”—that destroyed Peshtigo, Wis., in 1871, scorching over a million acres and killing 1,500 people, to the Tristate Tornado of 1925, which rampaged for 219 miles across parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. On ground level, Sandlin describes mankind’s efforts to comprehend storms, from Ben Franklin’s famous kite experiment to the F1–5 intensity rating system developed by Japanese immigrant Tetsuya Fujita. Sandlin makes talking about the weather much more than a conversational nicety—he makes it come brilliantly to life. 16 pages of b&w illus. Agent: Danielle Egan-Miller, Browne and Miller Literary Associates. (Mar.)
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