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on May 18, 2004
DREAMS OF IRON AND STEEL is a serving of History Lite. It is the written form of a BBC television series, subtitled "Seven Wonders of the Nineteenth Century". The subtitle is symptomatic of what is wrong with the book. In order to come up with seven wonders, Deborah Cadbury has stretched the nineteenth centruy to 1931 when Boulder Dam was begun. Her focus on one or two individuals who designed or constructed each of the wonders is probably dictated by the exigencies of television, rather than her adherence to the "great man" theory of history. Cadbury has the good taste, at least, to idolize the engineers and superintendent of the US intercontinental railroad instead of the crooked financiers who backed the project, as the late Stephen Ambrose did.
The British wonders are more interesting to an American reader because they are not so well known here. Cadbury's gaffs in setting the historical scene in Victorian Britain are less obvious to the reader in this country than the American ones. Example: "Nothern plans to abolish slavery had prompted seven southern states to break away and form the Confederate States of America." That statement wouldn't even pass muster in a high school essay on the causes of the Civil War.
Cadbury writes well, if a trifle overdramatically. That too may be traceable to the book's parentage. She appends a large "Bibliography and Sources" section at the end for readers seeking more substantial fare.