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Review: ‘And Hell Followed With It’ by Bonar Menninger

Review: ‘And Hell Followed With It’ by Bonar Menninger post image

Title: And Hell Followed With It: Life and Death in a Kansas Tornado
Author: Bonar Menninger
Genre: Literary Journalism
Year: 2011
Acquired: From the publisher for review.
Rating: ★★★★½

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.

Other Reviews:

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!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jeane March 17, 2011, 6:19 am

    Just the other night my six-year-old was asking about natural disasters and we were all thinking of which would be the most frightening. I think it would be terrifying to live through a tornado; am so glad I’ve never lived in an area that has them. The destruction they can do is mind-boggling.

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:11 am

      Jeane: This book further convinced me how terrifying tornadoes can be. He talks a lot in the beginning about how tornadoes are different from other disasters, and in pretty scary ways.

  • Lu March 17, 2011, 7:18 am

    Where I live, we get a bad hurricane every ten years or so and tropical storms a few times a year. Hurricanes generally come with tornadoes as well, so I’ve seen first hand what the damage can do from a small one. I can’t even imagine a stronger one. This book has such a good title and sounds so interesting. I think I will add it to my TBR.

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:18 am

      Lu: Yes, the title is really awesome. And the book was more interesting than I was expecting to to me. For whatever reason, I had low-ish expectations for the book, and they were definitely exceeded. I almost wrote, “Blown away,” but that seemed like a terribly insensitive pun.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) March 17, 2011, 11:47 am

    I’ve seen tornadoes destruction first hand as well and it is heartbreaking. This book sounds well written, even if it is a little wordy.

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:20 am

      Kathy: I wouldn’t say wordy, necessarily, just long enough that the organization starts to be obvious. Other than that, I was a big fan.

  • Liz March 17, 2011, 1:51 pm

    I happen to work at the Texas Tech University research center where the EF Scale was developed back in the 1970’s with Fujita et al, and in fact, our research library has all the research linked to it. (EF stands for Enhanced Fujita scale and was developed as researchers and insurance companies could not always put a measurement to a tornado with the original scale. This new scale allows for more detail.
    It’s fascinating and awe-inspiring to think about the power of Mother Nature sometimes. There is a new Omni film coming out tomrrow called “Tornado Alley” about a huge research project on tornadoes that went up down the Plains part of the US. Check it out if it comes to your town – supposed to be very interesting.

    Anyway, thanks for the review… I will see if I can find the book in our library.

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:21 am

      Liz: Wow, what a cool place to work! I’ll have to look out for the movie, even if seeing things like tornadoes is terrifying.

  • Ash March 17, 2011, 7:30 pm

    I knew I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw it and your review makes me positive I will love it. As a lover of nonfiction and someone who grew up around tornadoes I think I’ll really connect with it.

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:22 am

      Ash: Yeah, I think you’ll really like the book. It’s a great example of narrative nonfiction.

  • Aths March 17, 2011, 7:43 pm

    I’m surely going to add this to my pile. A tornado is one calamity I’ve read/heard about the least (Not that I’m sad about it). When I hear tornadoes, I still remember that movie, Twister. Great review! I can’t imagine having to see the effect of a tornado. I’ve seen the ‘after’ of a tsunami and that pretty much knocked me out.

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:23 am

      Aths: Ha, I remember Twister too! What a ridiculous movie. I have to admit, I didn’t know much about tornadoes, either.

  • Trisha March 17, 2011, 8:16 pm

    I’ll probably steer clear of this as I’m pretty freaked by tornadoes. Too close to home. 🙂

    • Kim March 19, 2011, 8:24 am

      Trisha: Yeah, this one would not be good if you’re freaked out about tornadoes — it’s very vivid.

  • Lisa March 19, 2011, 8:10 pm

    After living all of my life in Nebraska, you’d think I could read a book about tornadoes. But maybe because of having lived my life with tornadoes as a constant threat, I have a dire fear of them, having seen what they are capable of. I’m not sure I could read this one!

    • Kim March 21, 2011, 7:54 pm

      Lisa: Yeah, I can see the book being scary. The pictures are pretty frightening, too. For whatever reason, I’ve never been scared of tornadoes, even though I’m from the Midwest and so they’re obviously a real possibility.

  • Unruly Reader March 27, 2011, 5:46 pm

    This book sounds amazing. Must read!

    • Kim March 28, 2011, 5:04 pm

      Unruly Reader: It was very, very good. Other than those minor quibbles, I completely enjoyed it.

  • Malia May 4, 2011, 5:40 am

    I grew up just a mile or so away from the path of the tornado. (West of the VA hospital.) While our house wasn’t affected, it left a lasting impression on me. We rode out the storm in a store at Fairlawn Plaza. I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet, but I still want to get a copy. I’ve read excerpts of the book, and look forward to reading it. With the storms in Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi this last month, it has brought back a lot of memories of this powerful storm.

    • Kim May 7, 2011, 6:50 am

      Malia: Wow, that’s crazy! If you experienced this storm, I’m sure the book will bring back memories. And yes, with all the recent tornadoes, this seems like a must read.