My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“In retrospect, the story seems preordained, as if the people around the mountain on May 18 were playing out designated roles.
“But that’s a misconception…”
The infamous lateral blast of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 tears apart Steve Olson’s narrative the way it tore apart the countryside north of the mountain. The book’s heretofore studious exploration of the cultural, economic, scientific, and political background ceases for a time. It is replaced by abrupt, somewhat speculative, macabre mini-chapters about those who lost their lives during the eruption.
As the pyroclastic flow overcomes person after person, the book takes on an uncomfortably personal, borderline exploitative feel—verging on disaster film melodrama, almost in spite of the academic writing which makes up most of the book. This choice works, however. It sets up a highly thoughtful aftermath, including the above quote.
For all its objective journalistic ambitions, Eruption endears itself to the individuals who died. Olson makes a point to speak to the oft maligned motivations of the people who verged too close to the mountain on the day it blew. It is often assumed they were foolhardy thrill seekers. Olson’s “Untold Story” presents a more nuanced and sympathetic depiction of the victims.
Yet Olson cannot resist, and I do not fault, his willingness to at times render them as characters in a geological opera. In particular, he finds a hero in scientist Dave Johnston. As a coda to Johnston’s ill-fated visit to the mountain, Olson includes a quote from Teddy Roosevelt of which the scientist was fond. It begins as follows:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”
Within our solar system, volcanoes are among the most coveted of geologic phenomenon, second only perhaps to the presence of water. Olson’s account of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption demonstrates how humanity, science, and literature can interweave to produce an appropriate sense of awe and respect, both for the volcanoes and those who venture close to them.