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More Powerful Than Dynamite

Author Thai Jones is an assured narrator and brings the book's setting of 1914 New York vividly to life.

June 2, 2012

More Powerful Than Dynamite By Thai Jones Walker & Company 416 pp.

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Reviewed by Charles Homans for The Barnes & Noble Review

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Late on the morning of July 4, 1914, a peal of thunder rippled across Upper Manhattan. Pedestrians on Lexington Avenue between 103rd and 104th streets looked up to see an avalanche of powdered stone and splintered wood cascading down from the top floor of a tenement building on the west side of the block. When the air cleared, a young man's body was hanging from the balustrade of a fire escape far above the street, limbs akimbo. The name on the flyleaf of the address book in his pocket identified him as Arthur Caron, a onetime protégé of Upton Sinclair and a member of the anarchist community that regularly gathered uptown. Caron and two accomplices had accidentally detonated a cache of Russian nitroglycerine they were storing in the apartment of one of their comrades, the makings of a bomb intended for the Westchester County estate of the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It was the largest dynamite explosion New York had ever seen.
 
American radicals have never been particularly skilled bomb makers; half a century after the Lexington Avenue explosion, three members of the Weather Underground did the exact same thing, inadvertently leveling a townhouse in Greenwich Village with the explosives they intended to deliver to an army officers' dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. That symmetry was what drew the journalist-turned-historian Thai Jones, the son of members of the Weather Underground, to the 1914 incident. More Powerful Than Dynamite is at once a narrative history of the explosion and something more ambitious: a panoramic evocation of a uniquely combustible moment in New York history, when the city was obsessed with transforming itself for the better but lethally conflicted over what that actually meant.

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