Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History by William K. Klingman and Nicholas P. Klingman

Snow in July in New Hampshire. Hard frost in Virginia every month of the year. Constant rain and flooding all summer in Switzerland. 1816 was a very strange year, and no one knew why at the time. Amateur astronomers noticed unusual sunspot activity early in the year, but it did not persist. With no global communication technology other than letters carried by sailing ships, no one in North America or Europe knew about a massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia that scientists now agree was responsible for crop failures and famine worldwide. Instead, some evangelists claimed that it was the beginnings of the apocalypse.

The story of 1816 is hard to tell even now, as there are no documents from official weather bureaus or professional meteorologists to consult. In order to write The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History, authors William K. Klingman and Nicholas P. Klingman had to piece together archived newspaper accounts with comments from letters and diaries of people as diverse as authors Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, farmer David Thomas of western Pennsylvania, and diplomat John Quincy Adams. They also used the gardening records of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The result is a story woven from many threads, perhaps too many for some readers tastes.

With few accounts available from outside North America and Europe, The Year Without Summer is geographically unbalanced. Readers learn about terrible suffering in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany, and Switzerland, but very little about India, China, or Japan. Still, a dedicated history reader will glean historical nuggets from the story, especially regarding human migrations. Many people left New England for the Midwest or the South as their crops failed and they sold off their properties to buy food at highly inflated prices. Irish peasants left for North America, and desperate Germans headed for southern Russia. Lawmakers tried to prevent the exporting of grains from hard-hit regions, but that hardly constituted assistance for the poor. Readers may notice how many nineteenth century officials in America and Europe agreed that charity was not the role of government.

Shelved with science books in many libraries, The Year Without Summer, is a bit light on science and stronger on history. I think the authors might have more fully developed their conclusions. As it is, the story seems unfinished. I want to know more.

Klingman, William K. and Nicholas P. Klingman. The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History. St. Martin's Press, 2013. 338p. ISBN 9780312676452.

No comments: