Susan Reads: The Year Without Summer: 1816 by William Klingaman

Think winter’s lasting too long?  Imagine 18 straight months of cold and snow.

I’ve always liked books on natural disasters, and exploding volcanoes are about the biggest you can get. They spawn earthquakes and tsunamis, send pyroclastic flows racing down hillsides to poison and bury entire towns (Pele, Vesuvius, Pinatubo), blow entire islands away (Thera, Krakatoa), appear overnight (Parícutin), or ooze for years (Kilauea). They can also create spectacular sunsets for months afterward, or, if they’re really determined and throw huge amounts of ash too high into the air, they can change the climate of the entire Earth in a matter of weeks. This is what happened in 1816, when Mount Tambora, a fiery grumbling volcano, blew up in Indonesia, with the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The Year Without Summer: 1816 tells how this single volcanic eruption in the tropics had far-reaching effects around the world.

Mount Tambora didn’t just explode, like Krakatoa. It blew like a fountain, throwing so much ash into the air that it blackened the sky for thousands of miles and created a cloud of dust that blocked out the sun. This just happened to occur while the sun was at its coolest point in its cycle anyway (the Maunder Minimum). The resulting cooling of the ground (a 7-degree difference) brought on dire climate changes (parts of New Hampshire didn’t receive a drop of rain for more than 3 months, while Switzerland experienced horrific flooding), wild swings in temperature (July temps would hit 95 one day and it would snow the next), but mostly an unrelenting cold that prevented seasonal changes and destroyed most crops as far south as the Carolinas. It created dire famines and unrest through most of the British Isles and western and central Europe that lasted through 1818, beginning a wave of immigration that helped spread America westward.

Klingaman explores in great detail the effects of the climate change on political structures  in America and Europe, from the election politics of young America to disruptions in France, England, and Ireland. He spends a great deal of time discussing the travels of  Lord Byron, Percy Bysse Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley through Europe and Switzerland, who all wrote oodles of letters fretting about the weather. The darkness and seclusion caused by the weather gave rise to Mary Shelley’s famous masterpiece, Frankenstein.

Myself, I did not care for the book. Unlike Winchester’s Krakatoa, Klingaman barely discusses the volcano; it’s a cause for the book, not a main character, more like a shadowy villain behind the scenes. Instead, most of the book is about the American and European political fallout because of the climate change. I understand most of the voluminous information comes from primary sources, and because it’s 1816 there is a lot of relevant written information of the time, but I picked up the book wanting to read about a volcano. If you like history and politics, or biographies of Mary Shelley, you might enjoy the book.  If you’re looking for stories of volcanic glory and the birth and death of islands, go read Krakatoa.