From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Parker (Monte Cassino: The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II
) begins this engrossing narrative of the construction of what Theodore Roosevelt called one of the great works of the world well before the 20th century: everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Goethe was interested in a trans-isthmus canal, and one of the most arresting sections of the book chronicles the failed French efforts, in the late 1800s, to build one. Roosevelt then called for the building of a canal in his first address to Congress. The project faced countless challenges, but Parker is especially deft when addressing the racism that magnified already appalling working conditions. Those in charge didn't want to hire white American workers, who were too expensive and too unionized (though later, whites were hired), and the discussions about workers became racialized. The native Isthmian was too indolent, but black workers from the British West Indies were viewed as cheap and expendable. U.S. authorities discriminated racially, paying workers unequally and trying, in general, to prevent the intermingling of the races. This is not a narrow history of mechanical engineering but a well-researched and satisfying account of imperial vision and social inequity. Illus., maps. (Mar. 1)
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This history of the Panama Canal describes the scheming, the speculating, and the backbreaking laborperformed mostly by West Indians, who bore the brunt of the estimated twenty-five thousand fatalitiesthat went into "the costliest project ever yet attempted." Construction began in 1880, as a privately financed French enterprise, and was completed by the United States, in 1914. (Theodore Roosevelt called in the Army to finish the job.) Parker offers a detailed study of the myriad personalities and design plans associated with the work, but his limpid prose is best suited to accounts of the dangers the laborers faced: frequent mechanical accidents, landslides spanning fifty acres and ten days, and bouts of typhoid, dysentery, malaria, and yellow fever. As mountains were moved and raging rivers rerouted, one American diplomat observed, "Human life is about the cheapest article to be purchased."
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