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The Great Quake

How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet
Written by: Henry Fountain
Narrated by: Robert Fass
Length: 9 hrs and 2 mins
Categories: History, Americas

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Publisher's Summary

In the best-selling tradition of Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm, The Great Quake is a riveting narrative about the biggest earthquake in North American recorded history - the 1964 Alaska earthquake that demolished the city of Valdez and swept away the island village of Chenega - and the geologist who hunted for clues to explain how and why it took place.

At 5:36 p.m. on March 27, 1964, a magnitude 9.2 earthquake - the second most powerful in world history - struck the young state of Alaska. The violent shaking, followed by massive tsunamis, devastated the southern half of the state and killed more than 130 people. A day later George Plafker, a geologist with the US Geological Survey, arrived to investigate. His fascinating scientific detective work in the months that followed helped confirm the then-controversial theory of plate tectonics.

In a compelling tale about the almost unimaginable brute force of nature, New York Times science journalist Henry Fountain combines history and science to bring the quake and its aftermath to life in vivid detail. With deep on-the-ground reporting from Alaska, often in the company of George Plafker, Fountain shows how the earthquake left its mark on the land and its people - and on science.

©2017 Henry Fountain (P)2017 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

" The Great Quake explains how one of North America's worst recent natural disasters led to a fascinating insight. Henry Fountain offers a gripping tale of loss, heroism, and, ultimately, discovery." (Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction)
"Henry Fountain knows earthquakes, and he knows how to spin a yarn. The Great Quake is the fascinating result. It takes meticulous research and real narrative skill to tell a story that moves this fast yet still feels so complete. The book shines on two levels: as a portrait of two quirky frontier communities before, during and after a stunning disaster, and as the story of an unpretentious geologist whose brilliant analysis of the great quake's causes provided crucial backing for one of the biggest ideas in all of science." (Dan Fagin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tom's River)
"For five terrifying minutes in 1964, the earth shook beneath Anchorage, Alaska. It devastated the city, and towns and villages throughout the state. In this fast-paced, engaging account of that disaster, Henry Fountain tells us what it was like to be there. His interviews with fortunate survivors bear witness to the pluck and determination of the human spirit - and reveals the better side of our natures in times of crisis. Read this book to better understand nature's power - and our human resilience. Fountain's riveting, 'you were there' account pulls you in, and keeps you turning the pages to find out who survived - and how." (Virginia Morell, author of Animal Wise, a New York Times best-seller)

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  • Debby A Davis
  • 18-08-17

Fascinating to hear the full story

I was in this earthquake. I was 11 years old at the time. I remember much of what was told here, the JCPenney wall falling on the car, 4th street sinking, even the guy with the trumpet and much more. Learning now of the scientific side of the quake was so very enlightening and enjoyable. I'll listen to this book over and over. Only wish my Dad was still alive to hear it. He wrote his account of what all happened to us that day. He would of really enjoyed this book as well. Unfortunately he passed away 2 years ago. Thank you for writing such an informative yet entertaining account of what is still the scariest day of my life.

10 people found this helpful

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  • Musak
  • 15-08-17

Loved it.

As a science teacher, I love learning about the historical events we learn about in class in more detail. This book does an amazing job of describing the earthquake, the science of the day and the science that was learned through study of the earthquake region. Super interesting.

5 people found this helpful

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  • Donald Hill
  • 31-08-17

There is Nothing about the Book I Didn't Like!

Where does The Great Quake rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

Of the 45 audio books I have finished this year, I would rank The Great Quake in the top 10.

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Great Quake?

I would highly recommend Henry Fountain as an author. This book is about the Alaskan earthquake of 1964. I had only experienced this tragic event in documentaries and articles. Henry Fountain does something amazing in the story line, which I am a fan of, in a big way. He blends the story of George Plafker, who was a geologist with the US Geological Survey (a major character in the book) with the story about the victims of the quake, focusing on the early years of a school teacher, Kris Madsen Van Winkle, another major character in the book.

The story involves an emotional tale of the heartache with the loss of life among the residents in the village of Chenega, where Kris Madsen was a teacher in a one room school house at the time of the earthquake. The story is also about the residents of Valdez, and how hard there community was struck by the destruction and loss of life from the earthquake.

However, the story involves a great triumph involving the genius of George Plafker, geologist par excellence! What an amazing piece of journalism. Fountain made many trips to see Plafker and get his story (stated in the Acknowledgments). He provided an excellent background on Plafker's life and accomplishments. He also visited Kris Van Winkle and provided another human interest story on the background of her life as well.

Which scene was your favorite?

I am not a professional scientist, rather a technologist. But I have a great passion for science. My favorite part in this book was describing the detective work by George Plafker during the aftermath of the quake. I have a fairly good understanding of plate tectonics, which causes continental drift. However, I had no idea what a pivotal role George Plafker played in the eventual acceptance of the theory, first put forth by Alfred Wegener in the early 20th century.

If you have little, or no interest in the science of geology, this book may not be the book for you. But is you like to read a well blended story about human interest in communities affected by the earthquake that hit Alaska in the early 1960s, along with an in-depth explanation of what caused the quake and created such profound after-effects, you would certainly enjoy this book.

Any additional comments?

A big thank you to Henry Fountain for telling the story of George Plafker, along with his major contribution to geology and our understanding about the causes of earthquakes. If I had never read this book, I am not sure I would have ever learned about such a great man and his direct contribution to science.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Barbara Kautz
  • 29-11-17

Not really about the science

Although the subtitle of this book indicates it is about the science of the great Alaska quake, most is actually about the people affected by the quake. Just not what I thought I’d be reading

1 person found this helpful

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  • JKean
  • 24-11-17

Great book for geology fans

I really enjoyed this shorter but solid book. My only caveat is that I would have liked more concentration on the people rather than the geology. It’s intertwined and I’m very interested in geology, but the personal stories of surviving the quake were more interesting to me. Makes me want to hear more about them too.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Cheryl H.
  • 09-12-19

Extremely interesting!

I didn’t know much about this event, but I also learned a lot about earthquakes and geology. Read well too.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 25-06-19

Good account of the quake.

I was stationed in Anchorage in 1971 - 1974 and saw the aftermath that was still around then. The book brought a good amount of detail to what happened to the countryside and the people.

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  • F. Scott Humphrey
  • 03-03-19

hours of mindless babbling

for, literally, hours the author rambles on and on about people, every conceivable detail about these people. building characters, and putting people who were involved in a disaster in a human context, is understandable. but in this book, the author spends almost seven chapters describing the history of people who were not really that important.

then there's his repeated misuse of the word tidal wave. A tidal wave and a tsunami are totally different things. This author repeatedly uses the word tidal wave when he should be using the word tsunami. tsunamis killed people after the 1964 Alaska earthquake, not tidal waves.

I'm muscle through this boring audiobook this far, so I think I'm going to stick it out to the end.

God bless traffic jams in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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  • HT
  • 23-11-18

Excellent

It was an interesting history of the Good Friday quake, along with some back story on how geologists figured out earthquake science. It is one of those books that I didn’t want to stop listening to.

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  • Johnny Rockaway
  • 24-06-18

Very Compelling and Humbling Story

A cautionary tale that's filled with resilience and the pursuit of facts, facts that someday may save lives. I'd recommend our current CIC take a listen and a lesson about the power of nature. and how things once not understood or believed, ultimately have been proven by decades of science. The truth is not false simply because there are doubters .