The Rift by Walter J. Williams
Once again we had a large turnout, as fourteen people showed up to discuss this book. Additionally, one group member related comments from his wife, who had also read the book but was unable to attend. The Rift is a near-future disaster novel in which the New Madrid fault near the Mississippi River abruptly yields an earthquake of magnitude 8.9 on the Richter scale. The action follows a truly huge cast of characters spread all over the earthquake zone as they struggle to survive the disaster. A unifying theme is provided by two characters (a Caucasian teenage boy and an African-American adult engineer) who travel down the Mississippi in a boat, eventually encountering most of the rest of the viewpoint characters. Along the way, Williams provides details comparing this fictional quake with the little-known historical quakes that hit the New Madrid fault in the early 1800s.
We liked the scope of this book. Williams explored many consequences of a modern quake along the Mississippi, including fires, famine, poison gas, plague, concentration camps, race riots, and nuclear accidents. We were impressed by the detail of the research. Several people felt that following a black man and a white boy down the Mississippi was a deliberate homage to Huckleberry Finn. The author imparted depth to most of his large cast of characters, making us empathize with an army general, a fundamentalist preacher, and even a KKK leader. One character (Nick, the engineer) was so consistently resourceful that we felt his middle name must be “MacGyver”. This book made us more aware of natural disasters, causing one member to express relief that she no longer lived in Louisiana.
Two of us went into this book with an inclination against disaster novels. One was able to finish the book and admired a lot about the writer’s passion for the material, although she still did not like the basic disaster structure of the story. The other was unable to get into the book at all. She read the first forty pages, but found the prologue (depicting the 1800s quake from a Native American point of view) uninteresting. The length of the book was so imposing that she decided to read no further.
A controversial element of the book among our group was Williams’s extensive use of long excerpts from newspapers and personal letters about the historical quake. About a third of the group enjoyed this material and considered it a major strength of the book. Another third liked the idea of the clippings but felt they were too numerous and too long, bringing the narrative to a screeching halt every few pages. The rest of us skipped over the clippings and wished the author had either digested his research material better or grouped it all together in an appendix.
In general we found this to be an effective and engaging disaster novel. Willie Siros, to whom this book is dedicated, thought the book was brilliant and gives it his highest recommendation.
– A. T. Campbell, III