‘Storm’ a vortex of good storytelling

STORM KINGS. By Lee Sandlin. Pantheon Books. 260 pages. $26.95.

There’s no way that saying anything like, “This book is a history of tornado science,” can convince you just how cool it is to read about Ben Franklin as a pre-statesman youngster, offering himself as an agent to a theatrical performer who uses static electricity in a magic show. Or Franklin as a performer himself, setting up stunts like the Lady’s Kiss:

“The lady in question would sit in a chair while several aurora tubes were passed over and around her. Then a succession of young men would attempt to kiss her. Each time, the crackling static discharge from her lips and forehead would knock the suitor to the floor.”

Lee Sandlin’s “Storm Kings” is full of tales like that, stories with human dimensions that go well beyond the 1800s controversies over whether, first of all, there were such things as tornadoes, and second, whether they whirled. There are the heroes you’ve never heard of: the Signal Corps officer whose groundbreaking work on twisters was rejected, grudgingly accepted, then curtly dismissed by backstabbing federal bureaucrats before becoming a standard of the science. Officer John Finley’s near fatal midwinter climb up Pikes Peak is riveting, as he brings life-saving supplies to the men in one of the country’s first weather stations:

“They were obliged to leave the mules behind with the mountaineer to trudge up on foot. The snow grew so deep they were often wading up to their armpits. The weather became increasingly foul. Storms were cresting the mountaintop and spilling down along the slopes; there was thick fog in the ravines and a continuous pelting of rain, sleet and snow. There were terrifying lightning displays and gigantic echoing booms and crashes of thunder. At one point they were caught in a mysteriously charged snowstorm, where every flake left a trail of cold fire through the air, and their hair, beards and fingertips were emitting endless showers of sparks.

Whoa. That’s what “Storm Kings” is like. And along the way, Sandlin fends through a line of deadly, twisting historic storms that stand your hair on end.

Any story that starts with the wild Franklin and ends with “Mr. Tornado,” the singular tornado researcher Tetsuya Fujita, is a tale worth the telling. Enjoy.

Reviewer Bo Petersen is an environmental reporter at The Post and Courier.