In April 20, 2004, a massive tornado descended on the town of Utica, Illinois, taking with it the lives of eight residents. The sudden destruction of the tornado instantly devastated the community. Julie Keller of the Chicago Tribune wrote a three-part series on the tragedy that subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Reading the series, it’s not hard to see why. Her work is powerful, suspenseful, and superbly researched. And it reads like a novel. Keller reconstructs, moment-by-moment, what happened before, during, and after the terror dropped down from the sky and shattered a town.
Photo by John Lee for the Chicago Tribune
So why is this so good?
First off, Keller is an excellent reporter in this series, packing the stories with details, names, and a clear timeline of the event, along with what people were thinking at the time. But she also underscores the series with larger themes of the search for finding meaning in the tragedy. It’s a story about what happened, but it’s also about a lot more than that; it challenges the reader to consider his or her own mortality and the randomness we all face every day. In the sixth paragraph of this series, she hints at what is coming how it will affect those who survived:
…a short distance away, disparate elements–air, water and old sandstone blocks–soon would slam into each other like cars in a freeway pileup, ending eight lives and changing other lives forever.
The survivors would henceforth be haunted by the oldest, most vexing question of all: whether there is a destiny that shapes our fates or whether it is simply a matter of chance, of luck, of the way the wind blows.
A second technique that stood out to me in this piece is that Keller exhaustively researched and reported the piece, but narratively ties it altogether without fabricating anything. She takes artistic license without being dishonest or misleading. For example, as she describes Shelba Bimm driving across town minutes before the tragedy struck, she includes this paragraph:
All told, it took her less than a minute to cross Utica. Had she happened to lift her pale blue eyes to the rear view mirror as she left the city limits, she would have seen, poised there like a tableau in a snow globe just before it’s shaken up, her last intact view of the little town she loved.
Keller doesn’t manufacture a scene where Bimm looked in her rearview mirror; she says, accurately, that if Bimm had looked up, what she would have seen. And the paragraph itself is beautifully written with the description of Bimm’s eyes and the image town as “a tableau in a snowglobe.” It creates a powerful sense of the ominous force that is about to arrive and the loss to come.
Throughout this piece, Keller writes with simple, economical language, but also selectively poetic moments. She takes the descriptions of the events from the people she interviewed and builds from them some beautiful writing. It is tense, suspenseful, and memorable. You could even say cinematic. Consider this stretch of writing as she describes the arrival of the tornado:
At 5:58 p.m., Dena Mallie saw it from her driveway in Peru.
As it blossomed darkly, a huge batwing erasing the sky around it, a Utica contractor named Buck Bierbom saw it from his back yard.
Rona Burrows saw it. She leaned out the front door at Mill Street Market, where she worked as a cashier, and looked up at the sky.
Lisle Elsbury saw it from the alley behind Duffy’s.
It was a great black mass, a swirling coil some 200 yards wide at the ground–it was wider in the sky–heading northeast at about 30 m.p.h. They looked up and saw it but they thought: No. Couldn’t be. Could it?
There was a wild beauty to it, a fiercely knotted loveliness that was like nothing they’d ever seen. They could see debris swirling in it, pulled in and out and sucked up and around, frenzied sticks of wood, trees, dirt, other things, everything.
The ones who watched it come, watched it fill more and more of the blue-green sky like the canvas of a finicky painter who decides to slather the whole thing in black and start over, felt almost hypnotized at first, rooted to the earth but looking up, up, up. “Awesome” is the word that came instantly to Mallie. And not the way teenagers meant it. Awesome as in something that fills you up with awe.
Those seven paragraphs are a remarkable mix of reporting, research, and artful literary writing. She notes the time, where people stood when they saw it, what people thought, and what it looked like. The scene is suspenseful, gripping, rhythmic, and real; and Keller packs all that into 230 words.
Throughout the story, Keller uses visual metaphors. One of my favorites is how she describes, in the second part of the series, what the Milestone tavern looked like after being hit by the tornado: “like a sandcastle squashed by a bored kid at the beach.”
Finally, as noted above, Keller does a great job getting into the heads of the people she interviewed. She takes her reporting and uses it to create a vivid sense of someone’s thoughts at the time. Consider this part of the second story as she recreates the thoughts of Fire Chief Mike Edgcomb as he rushed to the site where the Milestone tavern once stood:
Please, God. Don’t let it be kids.
That was Edgcomb’s single thought, the one that kept pace with his racing heart as he ran toward Milestone: Please, God, no kids. Please. Please.
He’d been a firefighter for 25 years, he was a powerful, well-built man, a natural leader, and nobody would call Dave Edgcomb weak, no sir. He carried an air of can-do confidence.
But right now he was, in his thoughts, on his knees:
Please, God, just don’t let it be kids.
The short paragraphs written with the quick, panicked thoughts of the experienced Fire Chief feel genuine convey the urgency and uncertainty of the moment. Again, the reader feels like he or she is there, on the site, experiencing the drama first hand.
I could go on for another thousand words on how good this series is, but that’s why it won the Pulitzer. This should be required reading for students of nonfiction writing.
The best nonfiction writing combines research, reporting, and artful literary writing; this series puts the best of all three on display.