The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo

A dramatically told history of murder, madness and urban growing pains.


In The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer, Roseanne Montillo (The Lady and Her Monsters) concentrates on a gripping era of Boston’s history. In the late 1800s, a series of seemingly unrelated events are her focus: the Great Fire of 1872, which broke out despite the efforts of a fire chief who saw dangers parallel to Chicago’s Great Fire the previous year; the literary work of Herman Melville, who was increasingly fascinated by the concept of insanity; and, at the heart of this book, the crimes and incarceration of a boy named Jesse Harding Pomeroy.

Montillo follows Pomeroy’s childhood, his early crimes of torture against younger boys and the murders of two small children for which he would be convicted, in a burned-out city struggling with modernization and increasing class divisions. Throughout the investigation and trial, Pomeroy exhibits characteristics that would later have termed him a psychopath, and his lawyers’ attempt to plead insanity is part of the early establishment of precedent in such cases. Meanwhile, Melville experiments in his literature with the labels of monomania and moral insanity, and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes applies his medical expertise to the possible role of sensational dime novels in Pomeroy’s crimes, and weighs in on the question of executing the boy, who was 14 years old at the time of his conviction. Using detailed research, Montillo braids together these cross-disciplinary subjects–urban development and class, fire and murder, the definition of insanity and the standards of judicial punishment–into a story that has the momentum of a thriller.

This review originally ran in the March 31, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 piles of ashes.

my anniversary in history

This post is somewhat related to a an ongoing series.

Today is the 7th anniversary of my marriage to this handsome, supportive, bike-riding, brewing Husband.


On a far more sober note, some reading I did several months ago yielded these surprising coincidences. Also on April 19, in 1937:

  • Picasso began to conceive & sketch his theme for a commissioned mural that would become Guernica;
  • Canadian Norman Bethune resigned from the revolutionary blood transfusion organization he had founded & shaped in republican Spain; and
  • sent by the Nazis, twelve newly designed Messerschmitt Bf 109s arrived in northern Spain to support Franco’s forces.

These are momentous events that shaped the Spanish Civil War and its place in history, and I was struck that a day so meaningful in my life would have such larger implications. I just wanted to share.

…Thanks to Hell and Good Company, a fine book by Richard Rhodes, for these timely details.

Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss

A perceptive, sensitive history of both basketball and desegregation in the late 1960s.

strong inside

Perry Wallace, Jr., was a quiet, respectful student from Nashville, Tenn., who excelled at school (especially in math and science), at playing the trumpet and on the basketball court. Though not a natural leader or revolutionary, when recruited by schools across the nation, he reluctantly “made the decision to attend Vanderbilt University not because of the fact that he would be a trailblazer, but in spite of it.” When he enrolled in 1966, Wallace became the first African American to play in the Southeastern Conference, thus desegregating Deep South athletics. At Vanderbilt, he played in the same gym where Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr., participated in a speakers’ symposium during Wallace’s freshman year.

In his four years at “the Harvard of the South,” Wallace was harassed, spat upon, called names and assaulted on the court in a series of “fouls” that went uncalled. (His coach told him to “learn to duck.”) The away games in Mississippi were the worst, but even at Vanderbilt his classmates publicly ignored him, yet still cheered him on the court and furtively asked for his help with their homework.

Andrew Maraniss’s Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South deftly reveals the nuances of Wallace’s childhood, early education, groundbreaking career of torments and triumphs at Vanderbilt and the exceptional, well-rounded life that followed. A Vanderbilt alumnus, Maraniss shows great compassion and insight with a detailed narrative that is both broad and deep, covering the civil rights movement and college basketball with equal authority. Wallace’s story is powerfully moving and deservedly, beautifully told.

This review originally ran in the March 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 fouls not called.

A Greater Ireland: The Land League and Transatlantic Nationalism in Gilded Age America by Ely M. Janis

Scholarly examinations of a political movement delve into the nature of the Irish American identity.

greater ireland

A Greater Ireland: The Land League and Transatlantic Nationalism in Gilded Age America, by Ely M. Janis, is a concise, meticulously researched examination of one specific thread in a shared Irish and Irish American history: the Irish National Land League of the 1880s. This organization spanned the globe, uniting citizens of both Ireland and the United States in pursuing Irish land reform and self-rule, and had lasting repercussions for Irish American identity and political involvement.

…Click here to read the full review.

This review was published on February 27, 2015 by ForeWord Reviews.


My rating: 3 speaking appearances, for tedious readability.

Maximum Shelf: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on February 9, 2015.

dead wakeIn May of 1915, a torpedo fired from a German submarine struck the RMS Lusitania, a British passenger ship with nearly 200 Americans aboard. She sunk off the coast of Ireland in less than 20 minutes (due to a sequence of events unforeseen even by its attacker), killing 1,200 passengers and crew, fully half of whose remains were never recovered. Common knowledge has it that this event drove the United States to enter a European war that would become World War I, but, in fact, while the Lusitania‘s fate played some role in that decision, it took two full years and the secret German Zimmerman telegram for the U.S. to enter the war in 1917.

Erik Larson examines this extended U.S. isolationism, the final days aboard the Lusitania, and related events and characters in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. As in his earlier books (Isaac’s Storm; In the Garden of Beasts), Larson presents exhaustive research with precision and accuracy, in extraordinarily compelling prose. Dead Wake is a masterpiece of gripping narrative nonfiction, arguably the most riveting of Larson’s works.

Nearly 2,000 people boarded the Lusitania in New York City, bound for Liverpool, including 1,300 passengers, of whom 189 were Americans. An unusually large proportion were children and babies. The Lusitania was the biggest and fastest civilian ship on the seas in that 10th month of European war. These superlatives–plus the reassurances of the captain, William Thomas Turner, and the Liverpool-based Cunard Line–allowed the ship to confidently set sail despite a German warning published in all the New York papers on the morning of the Lusitania‘s departure, that “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction.” Larson provides detail and humanity by profiling several passengers and crew members, including a Vanderbilt heir; a psychic; and a Boston bookseller who boarded with a small but invaluable collection of William Makepeace Thackeray’s original illustrations and Charles Dickens’s own copy of A Christmas Carol, complete with the author’s marginalia.

Just weeks earlier, another vessel had departed from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. German Unterseeboot-20 was captained by Walther Schwieger, a well-regarded young Kapit√§nleutnant known for his aggressive and innovative tactics. Because submarines lost radio contact with their bases almost immediately upon departure and remained out of contact for much of their cruise, Schwieger was in full charge of his boat, empowered to cruise, dive and attack on his own, with the full support of his government. In following Schwieger’s submarine in the weeks leading up to the climax, Larson gives the story dimension; far from presenting the German captain as a monster, he is humanized, for example, by the devotion of the men who worked under him, and the presence on board of a litter of puppies rescued, interestingly, from another ship sunk by torpedo.

As he builds toward the inevitable intersection of U-20 with the Lusitania, Larson introduces more characters. Captain Turner of the Cunard Line had decades of experience at sea, and had just testified in a civil case against the owners of the Titanic on behalf of the families of deceased passengers. He was known to his men as a brave and capable but old-fashioned captain, with “one foot on the deck of a sailing ship.” U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had had a rough year, even without the European conflict: having lost his wife Ellen in late 1914, his mourning left him unmoored and struggling to concentrate, until he met widow Edith Bolling Galt. His love for her would prove overwhelming, and their courtship strained–she rejected his first marriage proposal. This love story is affecting, and if it serves as a distraction from the sinking ship at the center of this book, that is a fine style choice by Larson: it was a distraction for Wilson, too.

Meanwhile, a secret section of the British Admiralty was tasked with intercepting and decoding German wireless messages, a purpose known to only nine senior officials, who were hampered in using any information gained for fear of having its cryptanalysis ability revealed. They would therefore fail to warn Turner of U-20’s preying presence in the waters he sailed. Such parallel plots and individual profiles add color and depth to Larson’s account, as when the chief of British naval intelligence is described as “part Machiavelli, part schoolboy.”

The Lusitania‘s story is in itself moving, and carries great historical significance, but these events positively glitter with life in Larson’s engaging, quick-paced and captivating prose. Though it incorporates well-documented history, Dead Wake still contains elements of suspense for all but the most expert readers; as Larson acknowledges, he had his own misconceptions coming into this project, and learned surprising facts in his research, as readers surely will. The pages fly by as such details are revealed and the action ratchets up toward a climactic event that we all see coming, but that still makes us catch our breath. In spellbinding, immediate language, Larson contrasts the “books, and cigars, and fine foods, afternoon tea, and the easy cadence of shipboard life” on the Lusitania with the “U-boat sweat,” foul odors and close air aboard U-20. His enthralling description of passengers joking about submarines and torpedoes, in the very moments before the torpedo strike, and “making polite apologies” just after, in the scramble for life jackets, keep the reader fully engaged. Appealingly, in his “Note to Readers” and “Sources and Acknowledgments,” Larson writes in a more personal voice about the joy of the research process, and about his frank difficulty in understanding the passengers who boarded the Lusitania in the face of warnings from Germany about travel in a war zone.

Dead Wake is both a thoroughly satisfying read, and an unparalleled adventure into world history. Larson’s fans will rejoice, and grow in number.

Rating: 8 life jackets.

How lucky am I to get to interview Erik Larson?? Come back tomorrow to read the result.

Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes

The Spanish Civil War, and its medical, military and artistic contributions to modernity.


The Spanish Civil War was a precursor to World War II, and served as a practice field where medical and military leaders experimented with new technologies and refined strategies. Creative minds from around the world drew inspiration and horror from the conflict, yielding Picasso’s Guernica, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Miro’s El Segador and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. In Hell and Good Company, Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) examines the Spanish Civil War not in exhaustive chronology or complex international intrigue–although both are present–but in its gifts, good and bad, to the world that followed.

As Germany and Italy begrudgingly contributed to the Spanish nationalist (fascist) side, and the Soviet Union just as reluctantly supplied the republicans, new military technologies met old. Advances in aircraft were matched by new strategies, including “carpet bombing,” a term used for the carnage at Guernica. In response, doctors and nurses from Spain and abroad innovated as well: while reliable blood typing and preservation for blood banking had been under development since World War I, safe transfusions in the field were born in the Spanish Civil War, as was the autochir (a mobile, sterile surgical unit).

Rhodes follows various individuals, famous (Hemingway, Picasso) and less so (volunteer doctors, nurses and soldiers from around the world), providing a vivid, wrenching view of war, art and love. While it scrutinizes world-changing new technologies and ways of life, Hell and Good Company is also a fine, accessible introductory history of the Spanish Civil War, and an evocative human story.

This review originally ran in the February 6, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 bombs.

movie: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

I’m really pleased to have gone to see this movie locally with my dad. It was so good that I went back a few days later to see it again with my mom, so now it’s a family affair (as these things should be). She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a recently produced history of the women’s movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. It was nice to see it with my parents, who were there, and involved.

The movie includes historical footage of protests, speeches, news media, and interviews; contemporary interviews of activists who were involved in that history; the odd performances by actors; and reenactments. So many things struck me, and I’d like to point out that while I was often shocked by the horror, and the bravery, I was not surprised. Does that make sense? For example, the divisiveness of the movements – civil rights, women’s rights, peace – is unsurprising but will shock and dismay me every time. When a woman leader got up to speak in front of a crowd of “New Left” men, and they booed and catcalled her, I was (sadly) unsurprised, but astounded nonetheless. When the women’s movement ostracized its lesbian members, likewise.

"Lavender Menace," photo credit: Diana Davies, accessed here

“Lavender Menace,” photo credit: Diana Davies, accessed here

I enjoyed learning for the first time about the “Lavender Menace” action at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City on May 1, 1970. The need was unfortunate, but the demonstration was great fun, gave me joy. For that matter, another of the revelations of this film, for me, was the sense of fun associated with certain direct actions throughout the movement: that’s a part of the story that I hadn’t heard before, I don’t think. I also didn’t know how close we had gotten to having legislation passed supporting universal child care (thank you Nixon for this among other criminal shortcomings).

The first night I saw the movie, it was followed by a panel discussion with faculty members from local Western Washington University. These women were younger than I’d expected, in their thirties and forties, and the theatre was sold out – all good signs. We touched on the movie’s title: a criticism of the patronizing statement that we’re cute when we’re mad? or a sincere celebration of every woman’s beauty as she pursues right? (I think it’s both.)

I’m glad to have been reminded of that slogan of the women’s movement, that “the personal is political.” I’ve used some variation on this myself, because it makes so much sense: when politicians talk about forcing ultrasounds, we are quite literally talking about the inside of my reproductive organs; what could possibly be more personal? And I’m sure I knew on some level that I was citing my parents and their fellows, but I’m glad to have been reminded.

I cried when the movie got to present-day Texas, all those women in the capital protesting Senate Bill 5. I’m sorry I wasn’t there; I should have been there. Other interesting or affecting points in the film: the portrayal of our rage as a good thing (when emotion has come to be something we’re supposed to be ashamed of); and the excellent statement that the United States doesn’t like to credit radical movements with positive change in our history. Of course this only makes sense: it doesn’t behoove the powers to acknowledge that protest and civil disobedience do good. But revision of our history is a vile and insidious weapon being used all around us, and it bears noting (over and over again). Another statement of the film – I forget who made it – is that merely speaking truth aloud is a revolutionary and powerful act. Let’s not forget it.

"8-26-1970 March," photo credit: Diana Davies, accessed here

“8-26-1970 March,” photo credit: Diana Davies, accessed here

Thanks, ladies. I owe you.

Rating: 9 consciousness-raising groups.

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 490 other followers

%d bloggers like this: