Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens – REVIEW

4 out of 5 stars

Book cover with volcano spewing ash

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Erupting volcano line drawing

Brief Synopsis

For months in early 1980, scientists, journalists, sightseers, and nearby residents listened anxiously to rumblings in Mount St. Helens, part of the chain of western volcanoes fueled by the 700-mile-long Cascadia fault. Still, no one was prepared when an immense eruption took the top off of the mountain and laid waste to hundreds of square miles of verdant forests in southwestern Washington State. The eruption was one of the largest in human history, deposited ash in eleven U.S. states and five Canadian provinces, and caused more than one billion dollars in damage. It killed fifty-seven people, some as far as thirteen miles away from the volcano’s summit.

Shedding new light on the cataclysm, author Steve Olson interweaves the history and science behind this event with page-turning accounts of what happened to those who lived and those who died.

Powerful economic and historical forces influenced the fates of those around the volcano that sunny Sunday morning, including the construction of the nation’s railroads, the harvest of a continent’s vast forests, and the protection of America’s treasured public lands. The eruption of Mount St. Helens revealed how the past is constantly present in the lives of us all. At the same time, it transformed volcanic science, the study of environmental resilience, and, ultimately, our perceptions of what it will take to survive on an increasingly dangerous planet.

Rich with vivid personal stories of lumber tycoons, loggers, volcanologists, and conservationists, Eruption delivers a spellbinding narrative built from the testimonies of those closest to the disaster, and an epic tale of our fraught relationship with the natural world. (Source: Goodreads)

Lava spurting up from the ground


Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens by Steve Olson is a brilliant mix of the science behind the eruption and the personal stories of those affected by the eruptions – both victims and survivors. The combination of the two work together to show just how powerful the Earth can be and how much destruction and devastation can happen in an instant.

The re-telling of the victims’ and survivors’ stories is just phenomenal. While it’s a little macabre, I found the stories of what the victims would’ve gone through before they died fascinating. Conversely, the ingenuity and perseverance of the survivors was amazing and a wonderful example of the human spirit.

The only complaint I have about the book is that two separate times, the author takes us on a tangent and neither really needed to be included in the book. They didn’t add to the story line and in fact, their inclusion detracted from the story line. The first was the history of the WeyerHaeuser Logging Company and the family behind it. The second was a shorter tangent about Griffon Pinchot, who helped establish the national forestry services we have today. Both tangents are interesting on their own, but their inclusion in this book was definitely not the right decision.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book and I will definitely be reading it more than once in order to help all the scientific information sink into my brain.

(I received a free e-book of this title from NetGalley in exchange for my fair and honest review.  My review was not influenced by this. All opinions and conclusions are my own.)

Photograph of Mt. St. Helens after 1981 eruption
© Smithsonian Institution – All Rights Reserved

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