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The story of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, as related in this book, is told through the eyes of two lads: Henry Travis and Chin.
Although they are great friends, Henry and Chin were born on opposite ends of the social spectrum. Henry is the son of an upper class banker; Chin is the son of a poor Chinese immigrant. Henry lives in a brick mansion, Chin in a tenement house. Henry is rich, Chin is poor. They have different lifestyles, privileges, and opportunities. But both of their lives are cruelly shaken when The Great Earthquake strikes the city of San Francisco.
It happens early – the earthquake’s first rumbles are heard at 5 AM on the morning of April 18, 1906. It strikes swiftly, without forewarning, bursting upon the inhabitants with the full force of its terror. The first shocks rattle the strongest building and cause the weaker to collapse. The second round of shocks causes even the strongest of buildings to give way, trapping hundreds of people under and in their prodigious structures. As disastrous as this is, it is only to be amplified as the events of the day unfold.
Fires break out across the city, some beginning accidentally, and others as a result of arsonage. Soon large portions of the city are ablaze; people and animals alike are kept on a constant flight before the ravaging flames. Looters pillage the fallen mansions and exorbitant prices are charged for transportation from the city. Because of the violence of the earthquake, many of the waterlines are broken and inoperable. This causes a considerable hindrance to the already exhausted fireman as they seek to subjugate the fires.
As Henry and Chin’s families fight their way out of the city, they are tortured by the nightmare that surrounds them and the questions that absorb them: Can the fireman find enough water to quench the fires? Will they be able to salvage a small part of the city from the fires? And even if they can, will the lives of San Francisco’s inhabitants ever be the same?
Early on in the book, Mr. Yep introduces the element of the forbidden penny dreadfuls (similar to dime novels). The boys are depicted as reading them against their parents’ wishes in an attempt to experience the thrill of adventure. I was especially disappointed when the boys made slighting comments about their fathers in comparison to their imaginary heroes.
‘“When I grow up, I’m going to be a lawman just like Marshal Earp.” Henry pretends to blaze away with his six-shooters. “I’m never going to be like my father. All he does is add up numbers all day in that old bank.”
“And my father washes dishes,” Chin sighs.
“Neither is exciting,” Henry agrees.
Chin snuggles up in bed. Soon he loses himself in Marshal Earp’s adventures. His father is kind, and he works hard. But he is no hero. No one wants to read about peeling potatoes and washing dishes.
Just when I was getting good and frustrated with Mr. Yep for these intentionally disrespectful remarks, I realized what he was doing. And sure enough, when later on in the book their fathers are fighting fires and rescuing people, the boys realize that their fathers are real heroes, not just the kind you read about in a book.
Harry thought that Marshal Earp was brave. But no outlaw was as deadly as Nature. This is an even bigger battle. And his father doesn’t back down.
Chin was wrong about his father. He isn’t dull at all. He should have his own book, like Marshall Earp.
Once Henry wanted to be like Marshall Earp. Now he wants to be like his father.
The triumph comes in the last chapter of the book when Henry and Chin discover a penny dreadful among the ruins of San Francisco. Their fathers give them permission to read it to help take their minds off of the tragedy. This is the dialogue which ensues.
A few days ago, they used to read books just like that one. Life seemed so dull then.
Chin shakes his head. “You keep it, Henry. I’ve had enough excitement.” He hopes that the Earth Dragon will sleep a good long time.
Henry looks at their parents sitting on the wagon. They aren’t dismayed by the wreckage. They’re ready to rebuild their city. That takes more courage than capturing outlaws. He whispers to Chin, “and we don’t have to look far for heroes. They were right under our noses all this time.” Henry tosses the book to the side. Then he climbs on the wagon with Chin and Sawyer.
They’ll have enough adventures building a new city, too.
When given the opportunity to fill a mature role, they accept it without hesitation, thus becoming heroes themselves.
Throughout the course of the book, the great earthquake is referred to as the ‘Earth Dragon’. I conducted a cursory investigation of Chinese mythology, but I could find no further information about this name. Dragons are very important in Chinese mythology and many myths include dragons, but I found no stories about the Earth itself being a dragon. My guess is that Mr. Yep used the name as personification to give further interest to the story, not as an attempt to repackage a Chinese myth.
Conclusion. An interesting introduction to the Great San Franciso Earthquake.