1906 by James D’Alessandro

I found 1906 enthralling from beginning to end. San Francisco, at the time of the historic earthquake was in the grip of one of the most corrupt political machines we have ever seen in this country. James D’Alessandro’s novel is as much about the efforts of brave citizens to end this corruption as it is about the earthquake.
If you were foolish enough to go to the Barbary Coast district of San Francisco at a time when ships needed sailors, you could easily be drugged by the bartender and find yourself far out to sea by the time you woke up. You would be put to work under threat of the lash. It was an equal opportunity form of slavery. Shanghai Kelly or some such scum would be paid $90 per able body.
Ships would dock at the Barbary Coast bearing cargoes of pubescent and pre-pubescent Chinese girls, destined for employment at Madame Ah Toy’s establishment-a life that would be nasty, brutish and short. Civic minded women would go to the docks to protest and picket this illegal commerce. Who did the police arrest? The demonstrators!
D’Alssandro’s heroes are brave and stalwart. There is Byron Fallon, an honest cop determined to bring the corrupt powers-that-be to justice. He is assisted in his efforts to gather evidence by Annalisa Passerelli, who works as a theater and opera critic for a crusading San Francisco newspaper. Fallon is the leader of a brotherhood of honest policemen consisting of three families, two Irish and one Italian, and which includes his sons Christian, Anthony and Hunter. Hunter is a recent graduate of the Stanford University School of Engineering, a genius who is eager to apply technology to police work.
D’Alessandro’s characters also include Enrico Caruso, who was in San Francisco the night of the earthquake singing in Bizet’s Carmen, Kaitlin Staley, a precocious fifteen-year-old runaway from Lawrence Kansas, her father, Sheriff Lincoln Staley who comes to San Francisco to try to find his wayward daughter and Ting Leo, a heroic twelve-year-old Chinese girl. There is even an Emperor Norton-like character.

1906 describes the earthquake and its aftermath in great detail, the heroism and the appalling mistakes that were made, as well as the effects of political corruption that made the situation so much worse. It is clear that James D’Alessandro has done a tremendous job in researching both the event itself and the political and social fabric of the city at that time.
The 1906 earthquake, with all its horrifying destruction raises one of the most profound theological questions of our time: “If it’s true God spanked the town for being much too frisky, then why’d he burn the churches down and spare Hotaling’s Whiskey?”

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