I just finished Pierre Berton's The National Dream, the first book in my personal exploration of Canadian history. I learned a tremendous amount, and enjoyed most of it. I was going to read a novel in between histories, to give my brain a break, but now I've decided to plow ahead and read Berton's second railroad book, The Last Spike.
The story of the building of the trans-Canadian railroad is really three intertwined adventure stories. There's a political adventure, absolutely packed with corruption, scandal, intrigue, and even the threat of secession. Closely linked with that is a commercial adventure, about how enormous sums of money were raised, fortunes made and lost. And there's the physical adventure, about the people who explored the vast, unforgiving Canadian wilderness, enduring almost unbelievable physical hardships and meeting the greatest technological challenges of their era. Berton teases out the threads and brings it all to vivid life, which I think is the highest compliment you can pay a historian.
Many of the ongoing themes of current Canadian politics were already running through the infant Canada of the 1870s. Provincial rivalries abound. Did you know that shortly after Confederation, British Columbia was already threatening to secede? Relations with the United States are a constant theme, too, with some people viewing the power to the south as a friend and partner, and others fearing being engulfed and losing independence.
If you know anything about the Victorian age, you know this story is also chock full of corruption. And newspapers! There were dozens of them in those days, each functioning as a mouthpiece for a political party. (There were actually "ministerial newspapers" and "opposition newspapers".)
If you doubt our attention spans have gotten shorter in the electronic age, try this on for size. Politicians' speeches routinely droned on for three and four hours, and longer. A two-hour speech was barely worth giving. Speeches ran verbatim in the party newspaper the next day, then were often reprinted as pamphlets - which people gobbled up, and read voraciously. Pamphlets were 19th Century blogs.