Title: And Hell Followed With It: Life and Death in a Kansas Tornado
Author: Bonar Menninger
Genre: Literary Journalism
Acquired: From the publisher for review.
Two Sentence Summary: From the book jacket — “On June 8, 1966, an EF-5 tornado cut a 22-mile swath across eastern Kansas and straight through Topeka, Kansas’s capital city. When it was over, 16 people were dead, more than 500 were injured, and property damage had reached $100 million.”
One Sentence Review: The level of detail and strong use of visuals make this book an impressive and engrossing read.
Why I Read It: I love books by journalists about specific historical events, and a giant tornado sounds pretty terrifying.
Long Review: First, a story. Three years ago, I interned with a small, every-other-week newspaper in Hugo, Minnesota. The Saturday before I started, an EF-3 tornado ripped through the town of about 13,000 people, taking out an entire subdivision, killing a two-year-old boy, and injuring nine other people. I was camping out of the state and didn’t find out about the tornado until the day before I was supposed to start work.
When I arrived for my first day, the town was in shambles. I spent my first week helping answer calls at the newspaper office, and my first major photography assignment was to cover the volunteer cleanup day of the destroyed neighborhood.
Seeing what a tornado can do was humbling. Some houses were completely destroyed, while those less than a block away sustained almost no damage. Cars were crushed. Belongings were flung into trees. And almost all the residents I spoke with — while photographing what was probably one of the most difficult moments of their life — had stories about how they managed to protect themselves as the storm hit. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and easily one of the most challenging weeks of a job I expect I will ever experience.
A tornado is a weather event I think only happens in the Midwest, and it’s one I’ve grown up being aware of, even before the Hugo storm. So when I was offered And Hell Followed With It for review, I almost couldn’t say no. It took me a long time, months, to grab this book from my TBR pile, but once I did I raced through it in just a couple of days.
The setup of the book is pretty straightforward:
On June 8, 1966, an EF-5 tornado cut a 22-mile swath across eastern Kansas and straight through Topeka, Kansas’s capital city. When it was over, 16 people were dead, more than 500 were injured, and property damage had reached $100 million, making the tornado the most destructive in U.S. history up to that time.
Each chapter of the book focuses on a different section of Topeka and the residents who faced the tornado there, moving along the tornado’s path through the city.
What makes the book impossible to put down is the level of detail that Menninger gathered to tell the story. At every moment, his descriptions are precise and evocative. When describing the first weather warning that came to Topeka, Menniger says it “clattered across the wire at the rate of 80 words per minute.” One of the teenagers he interviewed didn’t just drive a blue car, she drove a “baby-blue 1960 Dodge Dart with a white vinyl top and a push-button automatic transmission.” When describing how a mother called her daughters inside from playing, he notes the girls were “‘resigned to their fate, but then brightened at the prospect of watching Batman after dinner.”
Without those details, which in some ways don’t seem important, the book and the characters just wouldn’t have the vitality that Menninger brings to them. Interestingly, Menninger’s writing style overall is pretty sparse, as one might expect from a journalist, but he’s able to really show the personalities of the residents and give them a voice through the details he gathered.
Admittedly, the book gets a bit long in the end. Every chapter is structured about the same way, with stories from people before, during, and after the tornado, and the narratives start to sound a little similar. However, I never felt bored while reading, even if the structure started to feel familiar. The book also benefits from many photos gathered in the middle, and well-illustrated maps that help chart out locations and the tornado’s path.
Overall, I was impressed and engrossed with the book and recommend it for anyone who appreciates really strong examples of historical narrative nonfiction.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!