Lee Sandlin grew up in the Chicago suburbs but he had a fascination with his father’s stories about the tornados that roared across the flat plains of rural Oklahoma. He both yearned to see this force of nature and feared it as well. He recalls visiting his grandmother in Oklahoma and asking her to show him the family’s tornado shelter, a bunker buried underneath a plot of land. It was dusty and filled with items long out of use but it also fueled Sandlin’s fascination with these whirlwinds of destruction named, by early settlers, as Storm Kings. Seemingly supernatural, they often glowed red or green as they whistled, moaned or sang appearing on the horizon and moving menacing across the landscape.
Sandlin became an avid studier of tornados, even at a young age, and he remembers with pride being able to tell his class that an impending storm wasn’t a tornado because it was the wrong color.
Now, Sandlin, an award-winning journalist and essayist who lives in Chicago, has written "Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers" (Pantheon 2013; $26.95), a fascinating look at all things tornado. Sandlin takes us on unusual journeys in his book. We learn about the people involved in learning more about what we now call super-cell tornados – the deadliest of all. The list includes Benjamin Franklin who was fascinated by violent storms and invented one of the first barometers as a way to measure atmospheric pressure, James Espy, consider being the country’s first meteorologist as well as Colonel John Park Finley, who helped place a network of weather spotters across the country.
As he did in his previous book, "Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild", Sandlin delves into intense detail giving us wonderful accounts of the history of the National Weather Service, the 18th and early 19th century scientists who believed that accounts of tornados were wild exaggerations — some even doubted their existence until a horrific tornado hit New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1835. He also mesmerizes readers with his accounts of the worst of the worst tornados this country has experienced including the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 which followed a straight-line 219 mile path for three-and-a-half hours across Missouri, Southern Illinois and Indiana, killing more than 600 people. Sandlin even includes his own storm chaser experiences. It’s an enjoyable book that will change the way we look at these extreme funnel clouds in the future.