Sunday, August 24, 2003

bill bryson, hometown fabulist

Although I'd like to be blogging about my super-secret trip this weekend, I'm too busy seething about Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. A friend recommended that I check the book out because it contains passages about my hometown, Manson, Iowa, which enters into his book because it is the site of the largest meteor impact in the United States.

I've never read any of Bryson's travel books. I suspect that they are probably quite entertaining, since he apparently does not have much concern for actually getting the matters of fact that he reports in his books correct. Or at least when it comes to my hometown. But whenever someone is ridiculously sloppy with the part of their work that you happen to know something about, it's hard not to be skeptical that you've discovered something about their modus operandi that probably applies equally well to all the other parts where you don't have firsthand knowledge. Here is a short span of text from his brief discussion of Manson, with annotations below:
"At the library in Manson they are delighted to show you a collection of newspaper articles and a box of core samples from a 1991-92 drilling program--indeed, they positively bustle to produce them--but you have to ask to see them. Nothing permanent is on display, and nowhere in the town is there any historical marker.[1]

"To most people in Manson the biggest thing ever to happen was a tornado that rolled up Main Street in 1979, tearing apart the business district. One of the advantages of all that surrounding flatness is that you can see the danger from a long way off. Virtually the whole town turned out at one end of Main Street and watched for half an hour as the tornado came toward them, hoping it would veer off, then prudently scampered when it did not.[2] Four of them, alas, didn't move quite fast enough and were killed.[3] Every June now Manson has a weeklong event[4] called Crater Days, which was dreamed up as a way of helping people forget that unhappy anniversary.[5] It doesn't really have anything to do with the crater....

"Very occasionally we get people coming in and asking where they should go to see the crater and we have to tell them that thtere is nothing to see," says Anna Schlapkohl, the town's friendly librarian.[6]

[1] - NOT TRUE, there has been a marker in Manson regarding the crater for several years, and since before Bryson did this book. I have a digital photo of the marker somewhere--it's right by the replica crater for which I have a photo on my webpage.

[2] - NOT TRUE. Maybe there were some people who gathered at the end of main street, but it was certainly not anything like most (much less "virtually all") of the town by any account of the tornado I have ever heard. The end of Main Street in Manson is actually more than a half mile south of the business district, however, so no one who had been standing there to watch the tornado would have had to scamper out of the way. Say that instead the end of Main Street was defined as where on Main Street the business district ended. Still, the tornado actually came across Main Street at such an angle that the businesses at the end of Main Street were not destroyed. You could have stood at the end and watched the tornado and--as long as you dodged the debris--would have been safe.

[3] - NOT TRUE. First, the tornado killed three people. I just verified my own memory here with a quick check of the web. Second, the passage makes it sound like they were all killed as they attempted to flee to safety--my recollection (I could be wrong about this) is that they all died in their homes. I certainly don't remember any account of them being swooped up as they tried to flee from watching the storm at the end of main street.

[4] - NOT TRUE. The event has never been "weeklong." It's been four days, but is usually three or even two.

[5] - NOT TRUE. The event was not dreamed up to "forget that unhappy anniversary" The event is held on the last weekend in June, at the anniversary of the tornado. However, it was first called Appreciation Days in celebration of those who helped get the town back on its feet (to the extent that it did) after the tornado struck. But you can't do that forever. So then it started to be called things like "Town and Country Days", etc.. "Greater Crater Days" has been its name for the last few years, as far as I can tell mostly from its standing as Manson's claim to fame.

[6] - True, perhaps--certainly our town librarian is friendly--but her name is Ann, not Anna.