I was hosting a party the other night and amongst my guests was a former editor of children’s literature. In the course of the evening she happened to notice that I had a copy of The Great Molasses Flood by Deborah Kops sitting on my shelf. She saw it and instantly gave a groan. Apparently there was a time there when it felt like every other children’s chapter book manuscript she received took place during that Boston tragedy. I admit I was surprised since before this book I hadn’t seen ANY that covered this event thoroughly, fictional or nonfictional. Indeed, until I read Kops’s book I wasn’t even sure about the logistics. How exactly does molasses go about flooding anyway? Maybe if I’d lived in Boston I’d have had an idea, but I’ve never set so much as a toe in that town. So it is that once again I rely on the good authors of informational books for kids to fill in my spotty knowledge with their wise words. The Great Molasses Flood answers every question a person might have about that infamous moment in history, and does so with compassion and accuracy (two qualities all authors, adult, children, teen, what have you, should strive to achieve).
January 15, 1919 was an unseasonably warm day. Forty-three degrees if you can believe it. And folks were just going about their workday as usual. Then, at 12:40 in the afternoon, the strangest thing occurred. The molasses tank, located next to Boston Harbor and the train yard, burst wide open. Instantly 2,319,525 gallons of molasses spilled onto the streets, lifting homes, destroying elevated train tracks, and ultimately killing 21 people and wounding countless others. A 40-foot wave of molasses makes a mark, and when all was said and done folks had to figure out who was to blame. Was it an act of terrorism (anarchists were in full swing so this wasn’t a crazy theory) or the fault of the tank? Whatever it was, it was an event that lasted long in the memories of those involved, even after the sticky sweet smell had faded.
Because I am a children’s librarian and I had a somewhat spotty education when it came to American history I tend to get most of my historical information from works intended for kids. Actually, I’m not alone in this. We used to have an old man in my children’s room that would come regularly to sit and read our history books because he liked how they laid out the facts. The same goes for me. So if I’m going to be honest with you, the first time I heard about The Great Molasses Flood was in Jennifer Armstrong’s The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History. That book’s a great collection of well-known and somewhat obscure tales from this nation’s past. All the stories are true but I had a hard time swallowing (forgive the pun) this molasses blarney. I mean, really? A big old WAVE of molasses came down the street? People died?!? Of molasses? I mean . . . what? It all makes slightly more sense when you hear that molasses was useful for making weapons and in a WWI era American that was why you’d have a tank of the stuff. Still . . .
One of the difficulties in making a book like this is in the telling. The Great Molasses Flood sounds, when you say it aloud, like a bad Monty Python sketch. As an author Ms. Kops has a duty to tell this tale in such a way where the audience is sympathetic to the folks involved. Yes, they were maimed, or killed, or hurt by the equivalent of a tidal wave of melted sugar. So how do you manage to keep the important fact (molasses wave) prominent while at the same time restraining the text from devolving into some kind of bad joke? The solution appears to be a kind of you-are-there approach. Kops opens the book on the day of the accident and leads up to it by leaping from person to person. We see a bar owner worried about the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, children outside picking leaking molasses from the outside of the tank as candy, train car inspectors on the job, firemen settling down to a siesta, and more. That way when the event occurs there are people you know directly involved. Now the problem with this is that Kops includes so many people that it’s hard to tell one from another sometimes. There’s a Cast of Characters listed in the front of the book but it requires a bit of backing and forthing to keep everyone straight (and only if you’re dedicated to doing so).
Kops also could have limited her focus of this tale and, as a result, limited the use of the book. I’m sure there would be a huge temptation to just talk about the flood itself and leave the story at that. Instead, she examines the accusations that flew after the accident and shows how applicable they are to our 21st century world. If a molasses tank were to explode in one of our cities today, you can bet that accusations of terrorism would be out there, absolutely. A significant portion of this book is then dedicated to the lawsuit brought against the tank’s owner, USIA (the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company) which is interesting insofar as it shows who ultimately paid for the damage, but will probably be of interest only to those kids with a judicial bend to their brains.
The design of the book is, as far as I can tell, meant to do two things at once. On the one hand the sepia brown throws you instantly back into the year of 1919. You don’t need a time machine if you make all the photographs brown. Additionally the brown is useful because that happens to be the color of molasses itself. And boy, I sure hope you like brown because the book’s just loaded with it. Brown titles, brown photographs, brown sidebars, brown endpapers, brown brown brown brown brown. The problem? Well, in my time as a children’s librarian I can tell you that getting a kid to pick up a book with a brown cover is akin to getting them to swallow red-hot pokers. Nothing doing. Kids today, for whatever reason, instantly associate the color brown with boredom. That means this book’s going to be a shelf sitter in bookstores and libraries alike unless you find a way to talk it up. Fortunately, the story kind of sells itself. It just needs someone to do the selling.
Let me state for the record that I am very happy with the number of photographs Ms. Kops was able to include. Since we’re talking about 1919 here it’s not like there were citizens on the streets with cell phone cameras snapping pics as the massive wave destroyed their homes. Instead, most of the photos are taken before the accident and after it occurred. These turn out to be hugely useful. In one two-page spread we see an elevated track next to a gigantic tank sitting peaceably. Later come multiple candid shots of folks wearing rubber boots walking through streets thick and sticky with the substance. Good crazy stuff.
You won’t find a Bibliography in the back of this book, which probably has to do with the fact that aside from The American Story there really aren’t any nonfiction books for kids out there that talk about this event. There’s an adult book called Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo (who provided a blurb for this book) but that’s about as close as you get. Really, as bizarre moments in American history go, this one’s tough to beat. It sounds on paper like a cut scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but was instead a massive horrific event that no one would ever want to live through. Definitely a book worth consulting from time to time, and kids will enjoy the pictures and the individual stories. Maybe some of the more technical details will appeal to only a few, but overall this is a title worth talking up, worth discovering. History was never quite this weird.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Ms. Kops speaks to WBUR.
- Read a selection of the first chapter here.
- Download the Discussion and Activity Guide here.
- And there’s a fabulous fermentation activity at the Growing With Science Blog inspired by the book.
And here, of course, is the trailer for the book.