Brief Reviews, VOLUME 3

Brief Review: A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL by Rebecca Solnit [Vol. 3, #1]

A Brief Review of

A Paradise Built in Hell:
The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.

Rebecca Solnit.

Hardback: Viking Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

Rebecca Solnit - A PARADISE BUILT IN HELLTracing community responses from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to the Halifax explosion, Mexico City earthquake, New York City after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, along with dozens of other related disasters along the way, Rebecca Solnit makes a strong case in her new book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster that it is in the emergent and innovative communities after disasters that a glimpse of another more hopeful world is visible. These communities are marked by “altruism and mutual aid …the practical mustering of creativity and resources to meet the challenges…a dispersed, decentralized system of decision making…connection, participation, altruism, and purposefulness. Thus the startling joy in disasters” (305-6).

Although it often takes a disaster to bring out these characteristics, Solnit repeatedly argues that these traits are inherent in human desire, countering popular (and primarily fictitious) narratives of “the pubic” as “so overwhelmed by fear and selfish desire that their judgment, their social bonds, even their humanity go wrong…Belief in panic provides a premise for treating the public as a problem to be shut out or controlled by the military” (123). For instance, the government response (both local, represented best by New Orleans’ mayor, Ray Nagin, but also national) to Hurricane Katrina seems inept at best and militaristic, racist, and unjust, especially as compared to community-driven responses to other disasters in which the hope of new possibilities subvert the top-down power of bureaucracies and governments. As Wendell Berry writes, “This / is not the way the world / is. It is a possibility / nonetheless deeply seeded / within the world” (Leavings, 105).

Imagining new realities in light of the present order happens after disasters in the form of opened neighborhoods and homes, a sharing of resources, mutual dependency and hospitality. A priest in the aftermath of 9-11 suggested one vision of this sort of community: “This is the Kingdom, this is the notion of everyone working and living together and eating together and pulling for a cause – totally other-directed, totally selfless and, frankly, very self-deprecating” (208). Seemingly, sustaining this sort of radical community could be the very call of the church. In an unexpected connection, eight-year-old Dorothy Day lives through the San Francisco earthquake and experiences that “while the crisis lasted, people loved each other” (60). The Catholic Worker movement and houses of hospitality she founded certainly stands as a model of these “extraordinary communities,” ones entirely relevant in light of economic collapse and environment disaster. In this way, Solnit sounds quite like Peter Maurin, Day’s co-conspirator, who wrote that “The Catholic Worker believes in creating a new society within the shell of the old;” A Paradise Built in Hell is a hopeful book that sees latent possibilities in the strength of folks to love one another, over and against anything that might break those ties.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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