The Great Quake by Henry Fountain

The Great Quake

Henry Fountain

The Great Quake interweaves a strong narrative about the catastrophic earthquake that devastated Alaska with the science of seismology and plate tectonics.

Start Reading….

Read Excerpt Now

Featured Titles


Sign me up to receive news about Henry Fountain.

Place our blog button on your blog to let people know you are a member of this great program!

In the bestselling 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 U.S. 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.

Advance Galley Reviews

Fountain's research is impressive and is equaled by his compelling narrative. His well-told recounting of this great quake is as gripping as it is educational. The reader is made to care so much about the people and places impacted by this disaster that one has to keep reading to find out how they fared. The scientific background Fountain provides enhances his account by the clarity of his explanations that even non-scientists can understand. The Great Quake is not my typical choice of reading, but I was intrigued by the comparison to Erik Larson's work and by my ignorance about this disaster. As one who lives in Northern California, I'm well-versed in earthquake preparedness and lore, and Henry Fountain's book provided additional interesting and important information. I'm grateful to Penguin's First to Read program for introducing me to this book.

The Great Quake is an interesting and informative account of the earthquake of 1964 and the advances in geological understanding that came out of the event. The book is well written, and Henry Fountain provides an immense amount of detail. I learned a lot about geology, Alaska, and the 1964 earthquake. Nevertheless, I found the overall structure of the book frustrating. Fountain develops two story lines–one about the geology of earthquakes and the other about how people and communities in Alaska were affected by the quake–and moves back and forth between the narratives throughout the book. Both narratives are centered around particular people, which helped hold my interest. But the geological story line was easier to follow, even for someone whose background is in the humanities, because there was only one central character, George Plafker, a geologist with the US Geological Survey. I found it harder to follow the other story line, which introduces several characters located in different communities, because it is repeatedly interrupted by the geological story. At one point, I wished that I had kept a list of characters that had been introduced in earlier chapters, so that I could more easily follow the details of that person’s experience. However, despite this quibble with the structure of the book, I am glad that I read the book and recommend it to others.

I really enjoyed this nonfiction account of Alaska's great earthquake. Fountain covers every aspect of the earthquake, from the state of the field of geology to the reactions of the victims when the shaking began. It was very technical and thoughtful, but the writing was also extremely interesting. I felt that I could grasp the power of this quake from the vivid descriptions. I will look for more books by Fountain.

The Great Quake is about the massive Good Friday earthquake that shook Alaska in March 1964, causing tsunamis and devastation to the southern portion of the state. It tells the tales of the geologists and other scientists that studied the quake and the area, the inhabitants, victims and survivors, and the state itself. I learned quite a bit from this book. I don't know much about Alaska, and even less about earthquakes, geology, seismology and plate tectonics, so this was all very new to me. It was interesting, but could be slow at times. Mostly, it was a thoroughly researched, well written narrative about a devastating earthquake, the science behind it, and the effects it had on the area and the rest of the world and science. A perfect read for anyone interested in nature, science, and/or Alaska.

Normally I am not much for reading nonfiction during the summer and usually opt for lighter reading. I had to read THE GREAT QUAKE by Henry Fountain because I am fascinated by earthquakes ever since I experienced my first one in Utah when I was nine years old. I also have a friend who lived in Alaska and was a survivor of the earthquake covered in the book. I was expecting a very t scientific and technical book, which it is, but I was surprised how lyrical and well written THE GREAT QUAKE is too! It reads like a good novel with descriptive passages of various places he saw as well as the devastation he witnessed. His profiles of the people involved, whether victim or investigator, were really interesting and all of this gave a human touch to the work that is accessible to the general reader as well as those with a knowledge of geology. The only thing missing are the photos and other visual items but I am sure they will be in the final copy. I liked this digital galley so much I am buying a copy for a friend (and will read it myself too!). Great book that kept me interested even in the summer and I hope it sells well for the author!

This book is an excellent example of really well done narrative non-fiction. There's human interest, history, geology, earthquakes, disaster, drama and a compelling story that keeps you hooked. I liked the way the author linked the events in Alaska in 1964 to the blossoming science of seismology and the theories of how plate tectonics actually works, while sharing the very human stories of the geologists who mapped these remote areas. The size and scale of the 1964 event is difficult to comprehend, but Henry Fountain has done a great job in illustrating the effect this earth movement had on the entire Ring of Fire region. A great read!

I have a new appreciation for scientists. As someone relatively unfamiliar with the world of geology, climatology, and the like, I was intrigued by the personalities presented in this story. I’m not sure what I was initially expecting, perhaps a moderately interesting read about the Alaskan earthquake and its devastating effects on the people who lived through it. But instead, I was treated to a highly readable narrative of the men and theories behind the study of geology and seismology. I was surprised at the pettiness of so-called “scientists” to those who had seemingly strayed into their field of expertise; I was awed by the men who, in spite of set-backs, were passionate about finding the truth; and I was mesmerized by this read. While I did learn of the significance of the “Quake of ’64, I also learned quite a bit regarding the history of plate tectonics, continental drift, and the scientists whose theories have offered explanations and predictions of our planet. I also feel I now have a better understanding of the continuum on which these theories evolved. (I was taught a lot of this, albeit cursory, in school; however, I never really saw the relevance of it to my life or previously held beliefs.) I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about earthquakes or continental theories of evolution (i.e. continental drift; Pangaea), and would suggest this to others looking for a highly readable nonfiction narrative on earthquake studies. This book is not for everyone, but I think more people will find it interesting than may take a chance on reading as its title/scope appear to be limited. Trust me- you do not need a background in science to appreciate this book.

There is a fine line in books like this, somewhat like an earthquake fault line, between being vague and simplistic, thereby boring the reader and making them wonder whether the book will provide them any information, and providing too much technical detail, thereby confusing the reader and losing their interest. This book does an excellent job of straddling the fault line. I was born in Alaska in 1967, just less than 3 years after the Good Friday Earthquake. I don't remember seeing damage but remember Earthquake Park. However, the earthquake was a frequent topic of conversation. That is why this book interested me. Mr. Fountain included a lot of scientific information but everything was very well described and understandable. Additionally, the book included a lot of the history of Alaska. Many times this reads like filler to me but in this case it did not. Mr. Fountain used it to drive home the point that because of the less densely populated state, fewer people were injured and less damage was done than had it happened somewhere else. It also helped the reader understand the unique difficulties in dealing with a natural disaster in a place that had limited access and limiting weather. One thing that stuck with me was how quickly the Federal Government was there to provide assistance. While I realize some of this was due to the Cold War and Alaska's proximity to Russia, it makes me wonder why places like New Orleans are still struggling post Hurricane Katrina. (This wasn't a focus of the book, just a personal aside.) For people interested in Alaska, history, earthquakes, geology, etc, this is a well written and engaging read.

The Great Quake is an interesting, informative, accessible, and utterly fascinating book. Part history, part science, and part personalities, it examines a formative moment in the U.S.; in geology, geophysics, and seismology; and the amazing event that changed our understanding of the earth forever. Fountain deftly takes his readers through a crash course in Alaskan history and then through a quick course on geophysics and the eventual rise of plate tectonics. He details other events (Lityua Bay) that lead into the Good Friday Earthquake. It's a seminal moment and the focus of this book and therefore the descriptions are the bulk of the book. The earthquake itself is the second largest recorded earthquake in the world, following only an earthquake just off the coast of Chile a few years prior. What it does to Alaska and what it does to the world in the form of tsunamis, changes in water tables, and other effects is truly breathtaking. The sheer number of players in the drama is also breathtaking and my biggest issue. I simply could not keep everyone straight; there were simply too many people. Descriptions and accounts of the earthquake are shocking and detailed and, in some cases, if they were in a fiction book would be discounted. Truth can be stranger than fiction. While the account of the earthquake is interesting, the strength of The Great Quake is in the tidbits and trivia, the little nuggets of science and history and events that litter it like dropstones. For example, roughly one out of every sixteen earthquakes in the world happens in Alaska. Who knew?! Or this one: plate tectonics only came into our understanding in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, when I learned it in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was treated as if we had known it since we'd known of gravity. It is a very new understanding of the earth and in a discipline that is equally as new. This is literally the story of the birth of an entire science discipline, an event that gave rise to a far greater understanding of the earth and how it works, and for many people it happened in their lifetime. It's simply amazing how new all of this is. Plus, terms like liquefaction are ones that I've read before. Christchurch, New Zealand has experienced it as a result of earthquakes. And now, things I have read about or heard of make so much more sense. The sheer volume of information in this book is amazing and I could probably read this 20 times and still learn something new each time. I can't recommend this book enough. It's accessibility to the non-scientist and it's focus on the events and players rather than complex scientific research make it a fascinating read. And still, scientific theories are explained in easy to understand language.

Interesting, excellent book! Henry Fountain does a superb job intertwining the geological facts with the personal histories of the people who survived the Alaskan Quake of 1964. Compelling read!! Highly recommend to anyone!

The Great Quake by Henry Fountain is for you! If you don't think you care about geology or earthquakes, this narrative non fiction story has a little bit of everything. Science? check. History? check. Human interest? check. Natural disaster? check and double check. Fountain did a wonderful job weaving the pieces together and bringing the science of earthquakes to life. Unless you happen to be into the science of plate tectonics and geology it's likely you haven't been exposed to the story of the Good Friday quake in March of 1964 in Alaska. It's a story of hope and resilience along with showing us the shift in thinking about the how and the why these events happen. Very engaging story

Growing up almost right on top of the New Madrid Fault, earthquakes were always a fear tucked into the back of peoples' minds. Even though the fault is overdue for a massive quake, fears like tornados and flooding were always more imminent problems. Now that I've read The Great Quake, part of me wants to immediately start creating an emergency plan for that next big earthquake. The other part of me wants to hide my head in the sand and pray that that quake doesn't happen while I'm around, because if it's anything as devastating as the Good Friday earthquake in Alaska, I'm done for. I am a big fan of nonfiction books written as narrative nonfiction. Books written this way read almost like fiction, except it's true. Facts and theories and data are presented in such a way that you never feel like you're getting a bunch of boring information dumped on you, and there's a flow to the narrative that isn't found in a lot of nonfiction. Erik Larson is a master of this form of writing, and in fact, The Great Quake reminds me a lot of Larson's Isaac's Storm, both in its execution and in its ability to introduce me to life- and world-changing natural disasters that I'd never heard about. The Great Quake focuses on the Good Friday earthquake that struck south-central Alaska on, as its name would suggest, Good Friday in 1964. It remains to this day the most powerful earthquake to hit North America and the second most powerful earthquake ever, reaching a 9.2 on the Richter scale and lasting a little more than four and a half minutes. But the story doesn't start with the earthquake; it actually starts in the days immediately after, when geologists such as George Plafker were called in to survey the damage, giving us an immediate feel of the massive scale of the earthquake and the damage it caused. There's immediately a sense of dread and loss and sorrow that glues you to the page and forces you to keep reading. How could something like this happen? How did no one see this quake coming? Why was the destruction and the loss of life so different between the towns? And what are the chances of this happening again? Like Larson, Henry Fountain begins the first chapter with a jump back to before the quake and introduces us to the towns and the people directly affected by the disaster. A teacher, fishermen, children, native Alaskans--Fountain includes stories of a variety of people and towns to connect us with the story and make us care about the outcome of the quake. It's one thing to consider the death and destruction from a scholarly standpoint, but it's something else all together to read the stories of the people who managed to survive only to lose everything. I loved getting the history of towns such as Chenega and Valdez and learning about how the unique geography and the entire nature of Alaska contributed to the development of these places and others just like them. There's also a lot of background regarding the study of geology and how that has changed over the years thanks in part to people like George Plafker who put their boots on the ground to get a firsthand look at the earth and how it changed over the millennia. The data collected by geologists from the Good Friday earthquake as well as other major quakes have greatly contributed to humanity's knowledge of earthquakes, and although there's still a lot to learn, we now have a better grasp on what causes earthquakes and where they're most likely to occur. In the whole book, the section on plate tectonics and continental drift and general geology was the only part that felt a bit dry, but the theories and data are really necessary for understanding the Alaska earthquake as well as all the tsunamis it spawned. And frankly, even this somewhat-boring section is more interesting than a lot of other nonfiction books I've read, so I wasn't too annoyed with it. Overall, The Great Quake is a fascinating and tragic read. There's a lot of science, but it's interspersed with stories of people and places who were forever changed by the Good Friday earthquake, and it all fits together to create a complex and interesting story. Fountain does a fantastic job of showing both the humanity of the situation and the scientific revelations that the earthquake imparted. The Great Quake will break your heart, but it will also teach you a lot; I recommend this book to any lover of non-fiction as well as to anyone looking for a fascinating story of courage and determination in the aftermath of terrible tragedy.

Describing the earthquake on March 27, 1964, the biggest quake ever recorded in North America, and it's after effects, this is a story about terrible devastation. But it's also a story about hope. The earthquake events are embedded in the history of science at the time, and how our understanding of plate tectonics changed. In fact, this quake is responsible for much of that change, as scientists like geologist George Plafker measured the shifts to try to understand how and why the disaster had occurred. The story isn't all about destruction, but about learning and rebuilding, and the will to go on. New homes were made, relief was sent, and people poured in to help. The forces of nature are ruthless and indifferent, but the human spirit is made of stronger stuff. There's a great deal of personal, detailed accounts of the people who lived near the faults, and the sheer overwhelming results of so much land shifting around (and then water). It's terrifyingly sobering, to think of how small we are, and yet fascinating, perhaps because it's true.

Unfortunately I was unable to read this book - my Nook kept freezing every time I tried to open this book.

It was well written and I enjoyed what I read. I'd never heard of this Earthquake before, so I had fun reading about it. But I felt like the book would wander a bit too often for my taste. If it were wandering through the time period and explaining the way things worked to us, I would have accepted it. Instead, it meandered through the lives of different people in a way that felt disconnected to me, like a conversion that keeps getting derailed. I still enjoyed reading it though. It was well-written like I said, detailed, and painstakingly researched to provide a window into a time and a disaster that few know about.

What a fantastic story! Not about the science of the event but the human drama before and after. This book will not only allow you to re-live the events of the past but will make you aware that "another" is coming and we all wonder when. Great read!

It was an entertaining read, I was expecting something more theoretical, so I was very surprised to see that in fact was a chronological exposition of the events explaining how the people that was living there got over after the earthquake that destroyed almost everything in Alaska.

I could never get the book to open so was disappointed that I was unable to read it.

I was not at all familiar with this incident or time period in Alaska, so I was glad to read this book and learn further. The historical aspect is my favorite part, of course, but I enjoyed reading more on the science behind the earthquake, especially considering I live almost directly on a fault line. Very well written and I would definitely recommend.

This book is a combination of science and history but heavy on the history. There were some slow parts some of the stories about individuals went on a bit to long for my taste. But in the end I really enjoyed the book and how the 1964 Alaska earthquake moved the science of plate tectonics along.

On March 27, 1964 a massive earthquake struck south central Alaska, causing widespread devastation, decimating the villages of Chenega and Valdez, and the area around the epicenter and killing people as far away as California. Two days later, George Plafker, a field geologist with the USGS, arrived to survey the area and find out all he could about what caused the earthquake. What he discovered would help to prove and name the theory of plate tectonics and shape our understanding of faults, earthquakes, and our planet. Henry Fountain pays respectful tribute to the victims and survivors of this earthquake while also conveying the magnitude of Plafker's accomplishments and the geology and seismology behind the earthquake. This book does a really good job of balancing the human interest side of the earthquake with the science behind it. You get the stories of the people and towns directly impacted by the devastation of the earthquake and resulting tsunamis, while also getting an education in seismology, in language easily understandable by non-geologists. It is not just a human interest story, or just a science book. It is both and I think that really contributes to its success. I highly enjoyed reading and being enlightened by this book. I read this book through Penguin's First to Read program and I actually accidentally clicked the "guarantee my copy" button instead of the "request a copy" button, but I'm glad I did because I probably wouldn't have won a copy since it's not my typical book and I probably wouldn't have thought to pick it up otherwise. It was a very engaging and educating and compulsively readable book and I would recommend it to anyone who is even remotely curious about earthquakes.

I would have loved to read this book, as I have been fascinated by earthquakes since childhood. Unfortunately, I was never able to access my galley no matter what program, app or device I used to download it, which was a crushing disappointment.

Before reading Henry Fountain's book I knew about the 1964 earthquake in Alaska, but not all the details. I love the narrative nonfiction genre with detailed research that is both deep and wide, providing a more accessible historical, scientific factual account of events than a textbook. There is a wealth of information in this book about Alaska, from the early settlements through the gold rush to the reconstruction after the earthquake. The scientific information was at times daunting to me with geology and geophysics facts, but Fountain has managed to keep it engaging and enlightening. Great read in the style of Erik Larson!

When I was growing up in the early 1960s my grandfather was corresponding with Maurice Ewing and William Donn of the Lamont Geological Observatory. Gramps had been interested in their work since 1958 when he read a Harper's Magazine article by Betty Friedan called The Coming Ice Age about their research. I didn't know that Project Moho, drilling cores in the deep sea, how to stop the next Ice Age, and Plate Tectonics was not normal dinner table talk. Gramps even got his old college buddy Roger Blough, then president of U. S. Steel, to kick in some funding for their research. Before 1971 when I took Historical Geology in college I had no idea that Plate Tectonics was a 'new' theory. I'd grown up with it. I requested The Great Quake:How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain from First to Read because I like geology and enjoy reading about Alaska. I was excited to learn it was about the very research that proved Plate Tectonics. Fountain introduces us to the people of several small Alaskan villages along the coast, recounting their history and way of life. The families have Russian last names, a legacy when Russia turned the native population into virtual slaves. They live on a subsistence level, their traditional hunting and fishing impacted by factory fishing. In 1964, on Good Friday, a 9.8 earthquake wrecked havoc and destroyed the villages, claiming the lives of 130 people. It is devastating to read about the tsunamis that wiped the land clean not only of people and houses but trees and the loose rocky layer on the shore. Geologist George Plafker was very familiar with the area. The day after the quake he flew over the area. His observations led to proving the controversial theory of Plate Tectonics that even Maurice Ewing did not yet subscribe to! The book reads like popular disaster books such as Dead Wake by Eric Larson, setting up the people and history, recreating the horror of the disaster, and then cogently explaining how Plafker's research impacted the scientific community. Readers can expect to learn Alaskan history and geography, be moved by the horror of the destruction, and brought to understand this planet we live on. I received a free ebook through First to Read in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

On March 27, 1964, a 9.2 magnitude earthquake hit southern Alaska. It lasted for 5 minutes and drastically changed the landscape. The Good Friday quake took over a hundred lives and caused millions of dollars in damages. The description of the quake while it happened is more exciting and riveting than anything Hollywood could produce as it was taken from the recollections of the people who lived through it. But, the Good Friday quake did more than damage, it changed the way earthquakes and furthered the theory of plate tectonics. This was mainly due to the work of George Plafker. George Plafker was a field geologist who was sent by the National Geological Survey to record the geological changes that had happened as a result of the quake. While others were sitting in offices looking at data theorizing the cause of the quake, George looked his own observations plus the data and developed the most conclusive theory on the source and cause of the quake. Overall, I enjoyed the book although there were some background sections that could have been cut. This was an advance copy, and I hope the final copy has pictures of areas the text describes.

I received this book in exchange for an honest review. I was attracted to it because as a child I remember seeing pictures of the devastation of the quake and hearing my parents discuss it. It was really refreshing to read a book about science that included the people affected by it. I was intrigued by the extent of the quake and the forces of nature that caused it. I wasn't aware how much in it's infancy the study of earthquakes was at that time. It was nice to read a science book that assumes the reader has little to no knowledge about the subject too. Well written and informative expose', and I would recommend it if you want a well-rounded short education about not only this earthquake, but earthquakes in general.

This book is devoted to a massive earthquake that hit Alaska in 1964. The early chapters jump around from the education of a geologist to the life of a schoolteacher in an Alaskan village to earlier scientific debates about the possible movement of continents. Once the earthquake occurs he does an excellent job of describing the effects of the quake on the people and landscape of Alaska. The discussion of plate tectonics and how the quake contributed to our knowledge about it is particularly fascinating. Definitely worth reading

I was intrigued by the blurb of this book-- I enjoy history and science, so this sounded like a great read. Going in I knew absolutely nothing about the 1964 Alaska quake, or its importance to science. The writing was vivid and gripping. Fountain gives you a brief taste of the aftermath of the quake, and then introduces you to the region, its people, and some of the science behind plate tectonics. Throughout the narrative, you feel as if you are there, experiencing the build-up and the quake along with the Valdez residents and Chenega villagers. I had trouble putting this one down, because I wanted to know what would happen next-- Did everyone make it out okay? How were people rebuilding? What's the area like now? Fountain goes into detail on a number of applicable scientific theories, and it is written in a way that is not too convoluted for a lay person, but does not feel overly "dumbed down." I had no idea that Alaska was such a hotbed for earthquakes. I learned so much reading this book, but I did not feel as if the information was forced or there was too much to take in; there was a good balance providing information (whether on geology, the people, earthquakes, plate tectonics, etc.) and of giving first-hand accounts of what it was like before, during, and after the 1964 Good Friday quake. Definitely recommend-- it's a great look at the importance and impact of field work in the scientific field.

I found this book interesting. I could not put it down.

This was an interesting book about the 1964 Alaska quake and the theory it reinforced on plate tectonics. Includes varied background information on Alaska's history, geology, residents of the affected areas of the quake and George Plafker's life. A lot of information is packed into the book, could sharpen up some the excess. The details of the quake and the individual people whose lives were highlighted during the quake, a one room school teacher, for instance, and Chenega village were well written and held my attention. The science not being written over your head was appreciated. A great read for summer and an eye opener.

Every time I tried to download this book it caused Blue Fire to crash. I had to reinstall it two times. I think there might be something wrong with the coding.


Copy the following link