Academic journal article The Geographical Review

VULCAN'S FURY: Man against the Volcano

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

VULCAN'S FURY: Man against the Volcano

Article excerpt

Most "volcano books" either portray volcanic processes in great detail, with the occasional example thrown in for illustrative purposes or describe volcanic eruptions, with a dollop of volcanic process theory on the side. Alwyn Scarth takes the latter tack in his new book, Vulcan's Fury: Man Against the Volcano, but he switches from having the volcano as the protagonist to making the people living around the volcano the subject of his stories. He describes fifteen historic eruptions from around the world, some of which are famous and others of which, though lesser known, had a profound effect on civilization. Scarth returned to original sources to investigate the stories of these eruptions, allowing him to debunk several common myths. For example, many more people than the one famous prisoner survived the 1902 Montagne Pelee eruption in Martinique.

By ALWYN SCARTH. xi and 300 pp.; maps, diagrs., ills., bibliog., index. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 0300075413.

Because Scarth's choice of volcanoes was restricted to those for which there is a detailed written history, many famous events, such as the great Minoan eruption, were necessarily excluded. His excellent choices include Vesuvius (famously described by Pliny the Younger), Etna, Monte Nuovo, Krakatau, Montagne Pelee, and four recent disasters, among them the great Laki, Iceland, eruption, which is surprisingly obscure considering its enormous societal effects. All of his stories are chosen and written to emphasize human reactions to volcanism. The subtitle of the book, "Man Against the Volcano," is somewhat overdramatic, for there is less a contest than a desperate scramble to get out of the way.

My reaction to the book was mixed at first, but I grew to like it very much. Part of my initial reaction was due to my specialty in explosive volcanic processes, for I found Scarth's treatment of the subject rather superficial. I asked a visiting archaeologist, with whom I am working on the effects of a recent eruption, to read the book. He raved about Scarth's storytelling ability and suggested that I break out of my volcanologist box. Returning to the book, I found the stories pulling me in. Scarth effectively turned my attention from the eruptions themselves to the relationship between people and environmental disasters and to the effect of eruptions on local areas and, in some cases, the entire world. …

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