Kristiana Gregory

Earthquake at Dawn

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Earthquake at Dawn Summary

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Earthquake at Dawn is a young adult historical fiction novel by Kristiana Gregory. It was published in 2003 as part of the Great Events series which document important events in United States history. Earthquake at Dawn is based on the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, one of the most destructive natural disasters in US history. The main characters are based on real historical figures and the book includes many real photographs of the aftermath of the quake.

The earthquake strikes the city at 5:15 a.m., while many of the residents are still asleep. Edith Irvine, a young photographer, and her assistant, Daisy Valentine are on a ship in the San Francisco Harbor, having just arrived in the city. Edith is only twenty-one years old but already an experienced photographer. She comes from Irvine, California, a city named after her family. Her father, a successful and wealthy gold miner, is in San Francisco on business. Edith is there to visit him on the morning of the earthquake.

Daisy, who serves as the narrator of the book, is a fictional character. She is a servant in the Irvine house and a good friend of Edith’s. The two have been very close since they were children, and Edith has taught Daisy to assist her in the darkroom developing photographs. The two learned photography while documenting the Electra Power Project, the building of a hydroelectric dam in Irvine.

When Edith gets off the ship and sees the destruction, she determines that she has to document the aftermath of the earthquake. However, San Francisco has been placed under martial law by police officers who want to keep the extent of the destruction under wraps so that immigrants will continue to flow into San Francisco. They threaten to take Edith’s cameras, so she conceals them in a baby carriage, taking them out only when the coast is clear.

Edith’s father has come to the dock to meet her and Daisy, but as they try to go back into the city they become separated in the chaos. Since Edith’s father has all the family’s papers, Edith and Daisy are stranded in the city until they can locate him. While they wander the streets, Edith and Daisy encounter a landlord Mr. Somers and his wife, Mrs. Somers, trapped in the rubble.

While freeing them, they also meet a friendly young woman Mary Exa Atkins Campbell, the author of a thirty-page letter recounting many of the events of the day. Gregory used this letter while researching the book, and excerpts from the letter begin each chapter, serving to foreshadow what will happen in that section.

The three women witness the fallout from martial law being instated. They see a couple that has lost their home start a fire in the street, which the police tell them to put out because it is a hazard. As soon as the police move on, the couple builds another fire that gets out of control, starting a blaze in the Mission District. When the police realize who is responsible for the fire, they shoot the couple dead.

Throughout the day, several aftershocks strike the city, causing some of the damaged buildings to collapse. In addition, several fires break out. The damaged infrastructure and lack of access to running water cause the fires to burn out of control.

Fleeing the fires, the women rescue several other citizens, including a store clerk who has been trapped by falling shelves, and baby that has tumbled out of a carriage. They also dodge collapsing buildings and work their way around massive holes in the ground. All the while, Edith takes pictures in secret, knowing that her camera will be taken if she is caught documenting the destruction; she may even be shot.

Eventually, Edith, Daisy, and Mary find their way to Golden Gate Park where other refugees from the earthquake are camped out. In her letter, Mary describes sixteen babies being born in the park, including one set of triplets. Also in the park are several other famous historical figures, including the actor John Barrymore and author Jack London. The women talk to both of them to get their perspective on the quake.

Edith and Daisy stay in the park for several days helping tend to the refugees along with Mary. Finally, they receive word that they will be allowed to evacuate San Francisco and return home. Edith has not been able to get word about her father the entire time she has been in the city, and so her journey home is anxious. However, upon arriving back in Irvine, she learns that her father is alive and has also been evacuated from San Francisco. The family is reunited after their horrifying and tragic ordeal.