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Panama Fever: The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time-- the Building of the Panama Canal Hardcover – March 18, 2008

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1 edition (March 18, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385515340
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385515344
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #984,498 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

This history of the Panama Canal describes the scheming, the speculating, and the backbreaking labor—performed mostly by West Indians, who bore the brunt of the estimated twenty-five thousand fatalities—that 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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Customer Reviews

I read this book while cruising the panama canal.
The Panama Canal story is an extraordinary, epic tale and Matthew Parker's marvellous account more than does it justice.
Daniel Hillman
The book is fasinating, but bogs down in mintiae too much.
tom pace

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By David Montgomery on May 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a well written story on the building of the Panama Canal. Matthew Parker focuses on the French efforts in the 1880s to the United States taking over the project in 1904. Several key figures are discussed such as Ferdinand de Lesseps, John Stevens, Theodore Roosevelt, William Gorgas and others from various skilled backgrounds. The author is extremely effective in telling the human side of the story, which is the area I usually find most compelling. The sheer scale of this project is enough to merit praise for those who were involved in this engineering marvel, though it had negative aspects to its building as well.

From the earliest explorers, the narrowness of the Panamanian Isthmus presented great potential to those who could envision the linking of the two oceans. Over time, we see competing ideas of where the canal should be built, e.g. such as the early U.S. view of building it in Nicaragua. People like Ferdinand de Lesseps, who built the Suez Canal, wanted it to be a sea level canal, while it was later on conceded that only a lock canal would be possible. How would the building of the canal be funded? Where would the labor force come from? How would the natural environment be manipulated? These were some of the major issues faced.

The nature of the Panamanian Isthmus, and its political status are also delved into. The controversial U.S. involvement in the independence of Panama is discussed in some detail. The United States had at this time an imperialistic streak, especially when seen against the backdrop of the Spanish-American War. Panama was in essence a government propped up by the U.S. Government in its desire to have control over the canal zone.

The French effort in building the canal ended in bankruptcy.
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Michael G. Spencer on July 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book is subtitled "The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time - the Building of the Panama Canal." It should have been subtitled "The Tragic Story of American Racism, Imperialism, and Exploitation during the Building of the Panama Canal," because this is clearly the theme.

The heroes of this tale are the West Indian blacks, chiefly British subjects, who provided the bulk of the unskilled workforce. The villians are the Americans, who are depicted as ruthless opportunists and bullies. The French are cast as an idealistic people intending a great service to humanity who were misled and robbed by a few frauds and charlatans involved in their canal project.

The social history is an interesting and worthy topic, but suffers from being told out of context. There is a palpable pro-European, anti-American bias. The casual reader might well infer that the evils of racism and imperialism were uniquely American, because the British author gives few details that would allow a reasoned comparison of American attitudes and practice to those then prevailing in British India and South Africa.

But all histories are biased to some extent. The chief fault of "Panama Fever" is that the social history is told to the near-exclusion of the details of the engineering project that is the ostensible subject of the book. The technical aspects are glossed over, and the building of the canal appears merely as a picturesque but indistinct backdrop for the social and political themes.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Hillman on November 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I loved this book. The Panama Canal story is an extraordinary, epic tale and Matthew Parker's marvellous account more than does it justice.

The book is written with a sure feel for the grand sweep of history: the unprecedented engineering challenge, the daunting geography of the mountainous Panamanian jungles, the strategic imperatives, the complex and fascinating finances, and the heart-rending and totally unforeseen logistical difficulties that turned dreams to nightmares.

At the same time the author has a wonderful nose for characters and this book has a rich and compelling cast to propel the story along. Parker clearly is a fine historian and one of the most impressive aspects of this book is the original work he has clearly done in scouring the archives to deliver a wealth of original written accounts - letters, diaries, company memos, political machinations, and so on.

The structure of the story is fascinating. The canal was begun by the French, expected to be the crowning glory of the man who built the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps: and the years of disaster didn't just finish him but came close to bankrupting a generation of French investors. The canal then went into a second, very different phase, after the rising power of the United States took it over as the keystone of a very modern strategic vision of the future. The Americans, it should be said, also completed it.

Parker devotes roughly half of the book to each phase, and the contrast is amazing - between, if you like, the Victorian era of Jules Verne fantasies and the modern age of skyscrapers and internal combustion engines. All this helps to make this story not just a historical epic but also a very modern tale of engineering on the grand scale.

All in all I heartily recommend this book. I read a lot of non-fiction and this has been one of the treats of the year. Buy it!
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More About the Author

Born in Central America in 1970, Matthew Parker spent part of his childhood in the West Indies. He has written for most UK national newspapers as well as The Literary Review, History Today and BBC History Magazine, as well as lecturing around the world and contributing to TV and radio programmes in the UK, Canada and US. His bestselling and critically-acclaimed books include Monte Cassino, Panama Fever and The Sugar Barons. His new book, Goldeneye, published in March 2015, explores the importance of Jamaica in the creation of British national icon James Bond. He lives in east London with his family and annoying dog. More at www.matthewparker.co.uk