I Survived the Great Molasses Flood, 1919
By Lauren Tarshis
Reviewed by Hank Bitten
I was intrigued by the title because I was not familiar with this event. The opening sentences described the experiences of a pre-teen, Carmen Grasso:
“Twelve-year old Carmen Grasso was drowning. She was caught in one of the deadliest disasters in the history of Boston. A gigantic wave had crashed in to the streets – a swirling, raging monster moving faster than a train. It turned buildings to rubble. It smashed wagons and motorcars and tossed trucks into the harbor.”
A few pages later, I discovered that the story was much larger than the rupture of a 2.3 million gallon molasses storage tank used to make explosives for World War 1. The headline on page 6, “DEADLY FLU HITS BOSTON!” will engage students in multiple questions about 1919. The history in I Survived the Great Molasses Flood, 1919 is also about returning soldiers from World War I, medical care, care for children whose parents died from the flu, immigration, the Messina earthquake in southern Italy, the popularity of The Wizard of Oz (book), poverty, rabies, and living in Boston’s North End.
The narrative of Carmen is compelling as she contrasts her hopes in the American Dream with the reality of her hope in the American Dream.
“Anything is possible in America,” Papa always said. “If you work hard, a person can be anything they want to be.”
You couldn’t be anything you wanted to be in southern Italy, though. Not unless you were already very rich. Papa had barely earned money as a farmer. All the men were farmers or fishermen; there were no other jobs. And girls? They got married and had babies.” (pp. 47-48)
The story of how the explosion injured Carmen leads to an opportunity for inquiry about the causes of the disaster, who should be liable for the deaths, injuries, and damage, and the quality of hospital care. In the tragedy, Carmen received a serious leg injury requiring stitches. Carmen likely received care at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the first hospitals in New England dating back to 1818. The narrative in I Survived the Great Molasses Flood, 1919 should lead to questions about the ethnicity of her nurse, the management of pain, physical therapy, and hospital wards. Some of these initial questions could lead to scaffolded questions about the changing immigrant population of the North End and proliferation of hospitals in America after the Civil War. This discussion should link to the demographics and hospital care in their communities a century ago and what their communities and medical care might be like in the future. The I Survived series might be relabeled as the I Discovered Series!
What struck me as a fascinating were the next 30 pages at the end of the book, about one-third of the book! On these insightful pages, Lauren Tarshis, author, reflects on how one young reader informed her about the molasses explosion, how she researched this event, and the importance of historical fiction accounts.
In this section she also raises questions about the responsibility of companies, workers, and government leaders. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, fire drills in schools, emergency evacuation procedures, preparation to prevent the spread of disease, are curriculum relevant issues for children studying civics, economics, financial literacy, and history. This book also provides opportunities for learning about science (molecular structure of molasses), economics (using molasses as a substitute for more expensive sugar), literature (Joshua’s Song, Dark Tide), civics (liability and court cases) and history, (World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic).
There are also video resources and news articles available which were published for the centennial anniversary of this disaster.