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The Year Without Summer: “Eighteen hundred and froze to death”

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Historian William K. Klingaman and meteorologist Nicholas P. Klingaman combine forces in The Year Without Summer: 1816 And The Volcano That Darkened The World And Changed History. Working in a vein similar to Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, the Klingamans weave together modern scientific explanations, nineteenth-century scientific (and religious) speculations, and historical events into a compelling account of what happens when weather goes wrong.

The book begins with the violent eruption of Mount Tambora in the Indonesia archipelago on April 5, 1815 and the immediate impact on the surrounding region. But the eruption is only the background. The main story is the disruption of weather that followed: more than twelve months of heavy rains in Europe, drought in North America and unseasonable cold everywhere. The Klingamans follow the extreme weather and its consequences month by month, drawing on witnesses that include Jane Austen and Thomas Jefferson, as well as newspaper accounts, sermons and government reports. They describe the cumulative impact of failed harvests, failed relief efforts and apocalyptic fears. Perhaps most important, they draw connections between the weather and historical events that are seldom considered together: the outbreak of religious revivalism in New York State known as the Second Great Awakening, American expansion west, political battles over the Corn Laws in England, growing unrest in post-Napoleonic France, and even the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The Year Without Summer is a fascinating blend of science and story, particularly relevant in the context of modern debates about climate change.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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