“Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World” by Gillen D’Arcy Wood (Book Review)

I bought this book (nook version) with a Barnes & Noble gift card which I received for Christmas (thanks, Mom!). Late last year I had read and really enjoyed the book “1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed” by Eric H. Cline, after which I thought, “I really need to get back to reading more world history,” and then this book by Gillen D’Arcy Wood (pictured below) came to my attention.

For those who don’t know, Mount Tambora is an Indonesian volcano on the island of Sumbawa. Its gigantic eruption in April of 1815 is thought to be the most violent volcanic event of the past millennium. The worldwide fallout from its orbiting cloud of dust and gasses lasted for over three years, wreaking havoc with the earth’s climate and exacting a toll in human life that probably surpasses all other natural disasters known. Its belated impact was responsible for the legendary “year without a summer” in 1816. This book tells the story – now able to be better understood in light of modern science – of this event and its repercussions.

Where in the world is Tambora? See the map below.The author had me hooked pretty early by tying in the story of Tambora with the story of the origins of the Mary Shelley novel, Frankenstein, written while she and her circle of friends were vacationing on lake Geneva during some of the worst of Tambora’s fallout. As the author puts it: “Shelley’s Storm-lashed novel Frankenstein bears the imprint of the Tambora summer of 1816, And her literary coterie – which included the poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron – will serve as our occasional tour guides through the suffering worldscape of 1815-1818.” Wood also notes that Charles Dickens was born in “the decade of Tambora” and grew up well knowing the cold, dreary and foggy conditions that creep into so many of his London novels.

For me, what was most interesting was not just how drastically life on earth in that time was affected by the event but that things had changed without people even knowing the reason for the suddenly harsh climate. As wood states, “For three years following Tambora’s explosion, to be alive, almost anywhere in the world, meant to be hungry.” It also – almost as likely – meant to be dodging outbreaks of typhus and cholera, or emigrating to North America, or anywhere that conditions might be better, for that matter. In parts of Europe, 1816 was known as “the year of the beggar” as large troops of starving peasants marched from town to town looking for food. Wood also discusses the impact on Thomas Jefferson’s fabled Monticello estate, where even the third president was not immune from the after effects of the “volcanic winter.”

Peppered with stories both global and local describing the eruption’s far reaching effects, this book made for fascinating reading and certainly doesn’t require a science degree or anything to be able to enjoy. Highly recommended.

Tambora today  (image from NY Times.)