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Shaking Up History with '1906'

The cover of '1906.'
The cover of '1906.'

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was one of the great natural disasters in American history. The quake and ensuing fire left a city known as the "Paris of the West" in ruins.

Then human venality made things worse. Looters were out in full force, picking damaged businesses clean. Federal troops given license to shoot and kill the thieves fired on many people who were simply trying to save their own property. And members of the security force also joined in the looting.

After the smoke cleared, politicians who had been the target of a massive corruption investigation before the disaster were left in power -- and painted a false picture for the world. They declared that fewer than 500 people had died, a figure that is now believed to be less than 10 percent of the actual toll.

Author and screenwriter James Dalessandro tells the epic story in a new novel, 1906. His heroine, a young investigative reporter at the center of the chaos and scandal, is fictional. But many real-life figures play a role. One is Enrico Caruso, the great tenor, who Dalessandro says really did sing (as legend has long held) from a hotel window as he surveyed the carnage.

The novel, already optioned to filmmaker Barry Levinson, hits shelves on the 98th anniversary of San Francisco's near demise. Dalessandro talks with NPR's Cheryl Corley about using fiction to set the historical record straight.

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Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.

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