“Thrilling. . . . Sandlin’s triumph is turning a historical survey of generations of American tornado scholars, victims and obsessives into something that reads like a brisk novel. It offers an epic scope reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez; vivid, eccentric characters that could inhabit a Jonathan Lethem book; rivalries as intense as anything in Dostoevsky or Archie comics; and wonders as grand as any described by L. Frank Baum (but with better tornado descriptions). . . . [T]his exciting study may become a bible of sorts to a generation of tornado aficionados, storm chasers and Weather Channel addicts.” —The Chicago Tribune
From the acclaimed author of Wicked River comes Storm Kings, a riveting tale of supercell tornadoes and the quirky, pioneering, weather-obsessed scientists whose discoveries created the science of modern meteorology.
While tornadoes have occasionally been spotted elsewhere, only the central plains of North America have the perfect conditions for their creation. For the early settlers the sight of a funnel cloud was an unearthly event. They called it the “Storm King,” and their descriptions bordered on the supernatural: it glowed green or red, it whistled or moaned or sang. In Storm Kings, Lee Sandlin explores America’s fascination with and unique relationship to tornadoes. From Ben Franklin’s early experiments to the “great storm war” of the nineteenth century to heartland life in the early twentieth century, Sandlin re-creates with vivid descriptions some of the most devastating storms in America’s history, including the Tri-state Tornado of 1925 and the Peshtigo “fire tornado,” whose deadly path of destruction was left encased in glass.
Drawing on memoirs, letters, eyewitness testimonies, and archives, Sandlin brings to life the forgotten characters and scientists who changed a nation—including James Espy, America’s first meteorologist, and Colonel John Park Finley, who helped place a network of weather “spotters” across the country. Along the way, Sandlin details the little-known but fascinating history of the National Weather Service, paints a vivid picture of the early Midwest, and shows how successive generations came to understand, and finally coexist with, the spiraling menace that could erase lives and whole towns in an instant.
Includes 16 pages of black-and-white illustrations
Praise for Storm Kings:
“Even readers who live far from Tornado Alley will appreciate Mr. Sandlin’s amiable style, his wide-ranging, infectious curiosity and the light he sheds on these most American of all storms.” —The Wall Street Journal
“The awe and terror that American weather inspired in early settlers is one of the most compelling motifs of Lee Sandlin’s compulsively readable Storm Kings. . . . Like much of the history of science, the story of this quest is rich with controversy. . . . Sandlin’s book is not simply a historical text about a problem that has been solved by technology; rather, it is a cautionary tale about the frequently unpredictable role that weather continues to play in our lives.” —Christian Science Monitor
“Storm Kings is not merely a theoretical or data-driven history of tornados and meteorology. Using his skills as a brilliant storyteller, Lee Sandlin places the reader in the middle of a storm, where he becomes an eyewitness to the helplessness, fear, destruction, and psychological aftermath of tornados. . . . Lee Sandlin uses the old song about “ghost riders in the sky” as a metaphor for today’s amateur storm chasers who continue in the tradition of James Espy and John Park Finley. Professionals and amateurs alike continue their quest—thundering onward across the endless skies. . . . The author takes us along for the ride. Readers will definitely feel its gale force.” —New York Journal of Books
Lee Sandlin is the author of Storm Kings: The Untold History of America’s First Tornado Chasers and Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, and also reviews books for The Wall Street Journal. His essay “Losing the War” was included in the anthology The New Kings of Nonfiction. He lives in Chicago.