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Molasses flood is recalled in book

Most disasters don't tickle funny bones. But, oddly, when Stephen Puleo speaks about his book on the Boston molasses flood, a good tee-hee is usually the crowd's first response.

''Perhaps it's the substance itself," he said. ''When you talk about a flood of molasses, it elicits this initial giggle. It sounds like a joke. But when people hear about the destruction and the loss of life, they step back and start to understand just how serious it was."

On Wednesday, the Weymouth-based author and historian will visit the Barnes & Noble in Bellingham to read from ''Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919" (Beacon Press). At the event, Puleo will not only discuss the 15-foot-high wave of molasses that spilled from a North End storage tank, leaving death and devastation in its suffocating wake, he also will tell how he researched the long-forgotten facts of the story.

''There was no book on the flood, just a few newspaper and magazine articles, and they all made use of just one source," said Puleo, who came upon the story while researching his master's thesis on Italian immigration. ''But there were two other sources that had never been used and that no one even knew existed for sure."

The known source was a summary report of the ruling issued in the lawsuit that followed the flood. But Puleo found two other troves of details. ''After a year and a half of looking, the court archivist finally called me one day and said she had found the trial transcripts, all 40 volumes, all 25,000 pages," he said, adding that she also found the trial damage awards. ''I'll never forget that day, but it wasn't until I started reading that I knew I had a book."

In the transcripts, people told how their lives changed that January day, company officials spoke in their own defense, and expert witnesses, the first to testify at a civil trial in Massachusetts, discussed damning details. All told, more than 1,000 witnesses were called. It was one of the first class-action lawsuits in the nation.

''After 85 years dormant in the archives, I pretty much broke the seal on them," Puleo said. ''There were 119 damage awards, and each was like a little story of one person."

The tale Puleo gleaned from those pages may be of disaster, but his book is no round of literary rubbernecking. The details of the 21 deaths, the ravaged buildings, and the grueling cleanup (the molasses hardened) are there, but a big-picture view of the era emerges as well.

''It is not an exaggeration to say that if you know this flood, you really know the story of America in the early 20th century. Just about every single major issue that the county faced at that time literally touches this story in some way."

Among the issues Puleo ties in are World War I (the molasses was distilled into industrial alcohol used to produce military explosives) and the anarchy movement (the tank owners stated that anarchists blew up the tank).

Immigration is explored as well. ''Most of the residents of the North End were Italian, they were immigrants, and they were not citizens, so they had very little to say," Puleo said. ''So this monstrous 2.3 million-gallon tank placed 3 feet from Commercial Street was erected without a whimper of protest, and no city official complained even after it started to leak from day one." The flood, he said, galvanized North End Italians to apply for citizenship and thus gain more influence.

Puleo also pinpoints other surprising ramifications. ''The molasses flood did for building standards what the Cocoanut Grove fire did for fire codes. There were no regulations at the time," he said. ''The molasses tank, which was 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, didn't even require a permit. After the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, construction standards began to get stringent, first in Boston, then in Massachusetts, and finally across the country."

Puleo will discuss ''Dark Tide" at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Barnes & Noble at 270 Hartford Ave. in Bellingham. More information may be obtained by calling 508-966-7600 or by visiting

COUNTRY SOUNDS -- Funny guy Don White needs little introduction. The Lynn-based comedian-turned-funny-folkie tends to sell out shows nationwide. But Liz Carlisle, who will share the bill with White Saturday at the Steeple Coffeehouse in Southborough, is a rising talent who deserves some buzz herself.

Carlisle, 21, traded her Montana home for a Cambridge address four years ago, but to hear her pure, honest vocals, you'd think her lungs are still powered by big-sky country air. Hers is a kind, unaffected, come-right-on-in type of voice -- one that manages to be pretty without being too cute, and earnest without taking on weight. It is a voice that simply puts you at ease, which is no accident.

''I have friends, songwriters, who deliberately with their music aim to afflict the comfortable," she said. ''I think music has to do both. It has to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and my niche has been to comfort the afflicted, which is all of us."

Carlisle soothes with a cache of original songs that cull the twang and heart of country music, the soul-searching of folk, and the lift of pop. Many are what she calls ''unapologetically useful" tales of coming of age or atmospheric odes to a place. ''I'm very moved by the places where I am. They stay with me and change me, so I write about them."

The Steeple show is part of the release tour for Carlisle's CD ''Five Star Day," recorded at Fox Run Studios in Sudbury. The tour has taken Carlisle to England, Texas, and back home to Montana, as well as along the East Coast.

As for what's next, Carlisle is balancing her senior year at Harvard in ethnomusicology with performing. ''After that, I see myself being involved in music for certain for the rest of my life." Let's hope so.

The show is set for 8 p.m. Saturday in the Steeple Coffeehouse at Pilgrim Church at 15 Common St. in Southborough. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door, and $10 for seniors and students. Call 508-485-4847 or visit

PAUSING FOR POETRY -- Call him the pied piper of poets. If Doug Holder isn't busy publishing poets via his Ibbetson Street Press or sharing new finds through newspaper stories or on cable TV, he's running readings, planning slams, organizing writers' festivals, helping patients at McLean Hospital write verse, or editing Poesy magazine.

With his fingers in so many poetry pots, Holder, 50, knows who is writing what and, when he spies talent, he makes sure that voice is heard. Next week, the Somerville-based poet will present three of his picks at the monthly Newton Free Library poetry series, which he took over in 2002. Reading will be Dick Lourie of Somerville, Laurie Rosenblatt of Brookline, and Clara Silverstein of Newton.Lourie impressed Holder with the musicality of his verse. ''He also writes poems about his father that deal with the yin and the yang of relationships with one's father -- the forgiving, the letting go, the getting closer. That really hit a chord with me," said Holder, adding that he also enjoys Lourie's poems about growing up Jewish.

Lourie is noted in poetry circles. He cofounded Hanging Loose Press, which launched many a poet, including Sherman Alexie, popularly known for the film ''Smoke Signals." But Rosenblatt, by day a psychiatrist working with cancer patients, is one of Holder's recent finds.

''She has not had much exposure but she's a very interesting writer," Holder said. ''She writes with an economy of words. Each word is very charged and full of meaning and there's no excess language. She brings a lot of her work and the issues of life and death into her poetry."

Silverstein, an author and food writer for the Boston Herald, caught Holder's attention with her culinary imagery. ''I've had a fascination with food. I believe it can be very evocative -- the smells, the tastes -- and I find that very interesting in her."

More important, all three write poems that perform what Holder sees as an essential service. ''Good poetry freezes a moment in time. It lets you examine it and reflect and maybe notice some beauty in the banality of every day. When we rush to the subway or sit at the computer, we might not notice how the light is striking the window, some plant, your child, your cat -- the beauty of that."

The three poets will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Newton Free Library, 330 Homer St . An open-mike session follows. Admission is free. Call 617-796-1360 or visit

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