Basic Books, $16.99, 288 pages
Anyone driving with a teenager in the passenger seat knows the frustration of the radio station being changed again… and again… and again. And this is a close, if imperfect, analogy to reading Hot Time in the Old Town. Edward P. Kohn jolts our collective memory with his meticulous account of the 1896 New York heat wave. But then, as we focus on the smitten tenements, he introduces Theodore Roosevelt’s inspirational idea of giving free ice to the poor as a palliative. And abruptly, as we absorb this and other measures, we are caught up in William Jennings Bryan’s presidential campaign, the hyped up speech where success didn’t materialize.
The heat wave exchanges roles from being the main feature to becoming a backdrop with the fatalities allotted fleeting obituaries as the mood switches back and forth to the political hurly-burly. The book is admirably researched, and the tragedy of the heat wave well captured. The political themes serve a purpose to those readers still enchanted by politics, but less to the rest of us beyond giving the heat wave a time frame and a context.