The Great Molasses Flood: Boston, 1919 by Deborah Kops
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: The sad truth, readers, is that despite years of reviewing, I have the reading tastes of a 12-year-old boy. I fight it but sadly the flesh is weak and this proclivity often overwhelms me. In my defense, WHO could resist a title like The Great Molasses Flood: Boston, 1919 (Charlesbridge 2012)? It simply isn’t humanly possible and I’ve been lusting after this book since I first heard about it. The kind people at Charlesbridge took pity on me at ALA and it was one of the first things I gleefully read when I got home.
Let’s be clear – it is a tragic story! 21 people lost their lives and there was immense property damage. But – wow – can you imagine a flood of molasses? Incredible! But as Kops says in her introduction:
It sounds like a bad joke. But as the people of Boston discovered on January 15, 1919, a dark rushing wave of molasses can be as destructive as a tornado.
What were 2 million tons of molasses doing in a tank anyway? How did the tank rupture and what happened to the people and the area it raced through? These are the questions explored in this fascinating book that is filled with quotes, primary source information and official trial transcripts. The sepia brown tones of the book fit perfectly and of special interest are the many beautifully reproduced photographs included throughout the book. Kops traces not only this astonishing event but also the lengthy legal investigation that followed.
Having spent several years of my childhood in the Boston area, I was astonished by this book. I knew absolutely nothing about it despite a lot of time spent studying the local history! This is a fascinating and little known piece of history that will grab the attention of every 12-year-old around you – and many more besides.
Cindy: First we have Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s ”Chocolate Pilot by Michael Tunnell and now from the same publisher, The Great Molasses Flood. So, does that qualify Charlesbridge as the publisher of “Sweet Non-fiction?” HA. I crack myself up. Seriously, though, 2 million plus gallons of molasses in ONE tank? In the middle of Boston’s North End neighborhood next to a playground? I bake with molasses but never knew that it was used to make amunition! The molasses came from the Caribbean and was used to make alcohol that was used in amunition production during the war. With The Great War just ended, the molasses was going to produce alcohol that would be distilled in rum production…for a year anyway…35 states had ratified the Eighteenth Amendment by the time of this accident and the sale and consumption of alcohol would soon be illegal.
The text is simple and clear and the topic is intriguing. As Lynn says, who can resist reading about a 40-50 wave of sticky molasses…one that moved buildings off their foundation and damaged elevated train tracks? Along with the details of the disaster and the investigation into its cause, there are lots of interesting details about early 20th century life (children sneaking into the train yard to gather up leaking molasses on sticks for a sweet treat), Prohibition, immigration, American Anarchists, and the slow nature of our legal system.
In looking online for some video about this disaster I realized I had heard of this little known historical event… an episode I’d seen of The Myth Busters show mentioned it while testing swimming speeds in syrup versus water!
Common Core Connections:
RH.6-8.7. Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
Have students research photographs from the Molasses Flood online, or reproduce them from the book and have them record facts from the book related to the disaster and the recovery that are documented in both text and illustration. A video by the author of Dark Tide (an adult book about the disaster) is available here and shows the Boston area where the flood occured.
RI.6.8. Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not.
The legal investigation explored two theories of the cause of the disaster…an explosion from an external source (potential terrorists) and structural integrity. Have students track the evidence in the text for each theory and cite examples of unsupported claims versus supported.