Monday, May 26, 2014

My Boys and Girls Are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion by Ron Rozelle (2012)

My Debbie Downer book club picked a hell of a sad title this time around. My Boys and Girls Are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion by Ron Rozelle (2012) tells the story of the 1937 explosion of the junior high / high school in New London, Texas -- still the largest death toll of any school disaster in the United States.

New London is in East Texas, near Tyler, about halfway between Dallas and Shreveport. In 1937, the depression was hitting the country hard, but the oil fields near New London made it a very prosperous part of the country. Single men and families moved there for work and they used some of that oil money to build one of the nicest new school buildings in the country.

Like many businesses and private residences in the area, the school decided to tap into the natural gas lines from the near-by oil wells to get free gas for the school. The oil companies used a little bit of the gas to run the wells, but most of it was just burned off and tapping into the lines was one of the benefits of living in an oil town. Towards the end of the day on March 18, 1937, gas from a leak built up in the large crawl space under the school and the building exploded when the industrial arts teacher turned on some equipment in the storage space. Over 295 people died, most of them children.

Rozelle's book starts with the feeling of a novel, giving us a look at the lives of the families, students, and teachers during the day before the explosion. While this technique doesn't always work for me, in this case I found it to be really effective and moving. As the narrative gets closer and closer to the explosion and its aftermath, I found myself having to put the book down to take a break and grab a kleenex.

The book goes on to give a more traditional historical view of the disaster and then moves us to present day New London to introduce some of the survivors who have collected material, created a museum with an archival collection, and raised a monument to a tragedy that for years was not spoken of by the people in the town who wanted to forget that day.

Living as an archivist involved with the history of Texas, I can't believe I'd never heard of this before. The book is a quick read and I'd recommend it to all Texans and anyone out there with an interest in history or crying.

You can read more about the disaster here and watch a fascinating contemporary newsreel of the event (which inflates the death toll) here.

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