It is April 14, 1912, the day of a famous disaster at sea. Daniel Hudson Burnham, the world-famous architect, sits in the cabin of a ship. He’s 65 years old, overweight, and has been experiencing pain lately. He thinks to himself that he is now paying for the food and drink he enjoyed as a much younger man.
Larson begins his book at the chronological end. This creates a mood of suspense: what is the project Burnham has been involved in? The idea that all humans eventually “pay” for what they do will be extremely important. The “ship disaster” refers to the day the Titanic sank, an event that readers know about but Burnham, of course, does not. The sense of immanent disaster — whether we know what the disaster will be or not — will return many times in this book.
Burnham is riding from America to Europe with his wife, Margaret, on the R.M.S. Olympic. Out of nowhere, he decides to send a telegram to his close friend, the painter Francis Millet, who is riding an even larger ship traveling in the opposite direction: the Titanic. He’s irritated to learn that the message can’t be sent, and asks why.
Burnham’s mild irritation is a good example of “dramatic irony,” when the audience knows something — in this case, that the Titanic will sink — but the character does not. Burnham establishes himself as a stubborn, determined man, who never takes “no” for an answer.
Burnham and Millet were two of the planners of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, planned in honor of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America. Burnham was instrumental in designing the fair’s enormous grounds and buildings, the so-called White City, and overcame an enormous number of logistical obstacles in doing so. Over the course of only six months, more than 27 million people visited the White City. There, they experienced its wonders: huge exhibit halls, new foods and drinks, and entire villages transplanted from Egypt, and Algeria. Many of the most famous Americans of the age praised the World’s Fair, and its visitors were so impressed by it that they wore fine clothing and treated the White City like a cathedral.
When reading a book about history, readers have one huge advantage: they know what happens before the characters do. Thus, readers know the Titanic sinks before Burnham has any idea. But Larson makes an interesting point. The people in a book about history also have an advantage over readers: they know about people and events that readers have never heard of. Thus, it’s a surprise to read about a massive but not very well remembered event like the Chicago WF. It’s as if Larson began the book talking about the Titanic to make us feel smug and confident — but then he surprised us by introducing information we (in all likelihood) know nothing about.
The White City wowed Americans, but it was also the site of many tragedies. Workers were killed and injured, fires claimed more lives, and during the closing ceremonies, an assassin murdered still others. Finally, there was a serial killer at the Chicago World’s Fair, who killed young women who came to the city looking for freedom and independence. Only after the fair ended did Burnham and the press learn about the murders this person, a young, handsome doctor, must have committed. The atmosphere of excitement and rapid change at the Fair made it easier for the doctor to get away with his crimes. When he was brought to justice, he claimed that he was the Devil and strange accidents happened to the people involved in his trial; the foreman on the jury that sentenced him, for instance, died suddenly.
Larson builds suspense by giving information , but not too much, about the great tragedies at the WF. He also establishes the principle storylines of his book: the story of how Burnham helped design the Fair, the story of the assassin at the Closing Ceremony, and the story of the young, handsome serial killer. The implication is that these stories are closely linked, and not just because they happened at the same time: in a way, the implication is that the WF may have caused the deaths of the young women.
Back on the Olympic, Burnham contemplates his aching feet. He and Millet are some of the only designers of the World’s Fair still alive. Soon, no one will remember the Chicago World’s Fair firsthand. Millet will survive for a while longer, Burnham thinks to himself.
Having explained the magnitude of the WF, Larson describes how quickly it fades from memory. It’s as if he’s saying, “How is it possible that something so big and important and helped to define so many things could have been forgotten?”
Burnham learns from the ship’s steward that Millet’s ship has experienced an accident, and the Olympic is now racing to help the passengers. Burnham returns to his room, opens his diary, and thinks about the Fair.
With the “frame narrative” of Burnham on the Olympic in 1912 established, Larson begins to tell his story. The structure of his book resembles that of a movie, with the plot “flashing back” and eventually coming “full circle.” This sets the tone for an exciting, often very intimate look at history.