Feature

Book of the week: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

<em>A Paradise Built in Hell </em>looks at five great disasters and the compassionate responses of the communities in which they arose.&nbsp;

by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 353 pages, $27.95)

The stories about the ordinary heroes of Sept. 11, 2001—New Yorkers who rushed to help the thousands initially trapped in the flaming twin towers—are well known by now. Firefighters and police officers marched up smoke-filled stairwells as thousands of civilians poured down. Office workers created a relay brigade to carry a paraplegic colleague down from the 69th floor. Ferry operators darted into nearby waters to carry thousands to safer shores. But the spirit expressed by those selfless acts demands closer scrutiny, says author Rebecca Solnit. When catastrophe strikes, it offers “an extraordinary window” onto who we are as humans, and the type of society we’re capable of creating. What’s revealed is that “the possibility of paradise is already within us.”

Solnit’s “exciting and important” new book scrutinizes the aftermath of five great disasters, said Dan Baum in The Washington Post. Her accounts of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, of a 1917 ship explosion off Novia Scotia, and of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina “are so stirring” that A Paradise Built in Hell “is worth reading for its storytelling alone.” But she goes further, generating “a withering critique of modern capitalist society.” Daringly, she argues that post-catastrophe violence generally is ignited only when authorities intervene. New Orleans, in Solnit’s view, would have endured Katrina’s floodwaters far more peacefully if police hadn’t closed bridges, turned the city into a prison, and then spread false rumors about rampant rape and murder. Her term, “elite panic,” describes perfectly the root cause of the ugliness that followed the storm.

But Solnit’s take on what happens when disaster survivors are left to their own devices is naïve, said Christine Stansell in The New Republic. She “ignores the vast contrary evidence that disasters can bring out the worst in people as well as the best.” Only an American intellectual would forget to consider instances of genocide when pondering how severe crisis affects human behavior. Still, the flaws in Solnit’s book fail to “negate her achievement,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Humans may be imperfect, but they are also far more inclined to compassionate civility than Hollywood or the news media indicate. In the “purposeful joy” that survivors experience while aiding one another, Solnit finds the seed of a better tomorrow.

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