Saturday, May 12, 2018

Review: THE MAN WHO CAUGHT THE STORM by Brantley Hargrove

I reviewed The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras (Simon & Schuster) by Dallas's Brantley Hargrove for Lone Star Literary Life! "The Man Who Caught the Storm opens with the tornado that wiped Jarrell, Texas, off the map in 1997, and closes with an inspired epilogue, revisiting the people and place where Samaras’ probe (affectionately known as the “turtle”) first successfully penetrated the core of the vortex, collecting data never before seen. In between is a fast-paced, dynamic account of a man and his obsession, providing us an entrée into a subculture few will ever experience."

BIOGRAPHY/WEATHER
Brantley Hargrove
The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras
Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, 978-1-4767-9609-3, (also available as an e-book, an audio book, and on Audible), 304 pgs., $26.00
April 3, 2018

On March 28, 2017, in Dickens County, Texas, just west of the city of Spur, shortly after a tornado warning was issued, three storm chasers, two of whom were contractors for The Weather Channel, were killed when their vehicles collided during a chase. I live in Spur now, and violent tornadic storms are a terrifying but fascinating fact of life in this part of the world, often beautiful on the approach, before they turn vicious.

Tim Samaras, a Coloradoan, often chased storms in Texas, very near my home. He had no more education than a high school diploma, but innate talent and skill, combined with knowledge learned in his job testing high explosives and concussive force for the military, met with a little serendipity. Samaras had an instinct for storm movement and convergence and designed an in situ probe that worked when the professors said it couldn’t be done. He enjoyed a loving and fulfilling family life and a successful professional life, including stints with National Geographic and Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers.” Until Samaras’ death during a storm outside El Reno, Oklahoma, at 6:23 p.m. on May 31, 2013, no storm chaser had died by tornado, improbable as that seems. The tornado that caught Samaras, his son, Paul, and fellow chaser Carl Young, was 2.6 miles wide, the largest ever recorded.

The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras is Dallas journalist Brantley Hargrove’s first book. His articles have previously appeared in Wired, Popular Mechanics, and Texas Monthly. The Man Who Caught the Storm opens with the tornado that wiped Jarrell, Texas, off the map in 1997, and closes with an inspired epilogue, revisiting the people and place where Samaras’ probe (affectionately known as the “turtle”) first successfully penetrated the core of the vortex, collecting data never before seen. In between is a fast-paced, dynamic account of a man and his obsession, providing us an entrée into a subculture few will ever experience.

Hargrove conducted extensive research on the various sciences involved in storm prediction and chasing, including interviews with scientists at the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies and the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma. The science is accessible and the history of storm prediction and the “cowboy science” of chasing are fascinating. Hargrove interviewed family and friends, and had access to video and audio recordings, as well as Samaras’ own writing and correspondence.

Then Hargrove went tornado hunting with Samaras’ colleagues, the better to convey the chase. His descriptions and imagery are evocative and gripping, sometimes chilling. In Part III, as the end nears, everything seems portentous, and Hargrove’s pacing is perfect, the tension unnerving. Occasionally he becomes overwrought, but it’s difficult to overstate the devastation and the stakes.

Hargrove allows us to live vicariously through the eyes and ears of Samaras and his fellow travelers. The Man Who Caught the Storm is a fitting tribute — and why we read biography.

Originally published in Lone Star Literary Life.

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