2.02.2006

what i'm reading: pierre berton

I just finished The Last Spike, the second of Pierre Berton's books about the building of the Canadian transcontinental railway. (I read both books in succession.)

If you love history, as I do, this was a fantastic book. The story of building the railroad across Canada is a heroic tale, or many heroic tales wrapped into one - stories of tremendous daring and nerve, and great cruelty and deprivation.

Berton paints the full picture. It's the story of the men whose back-breaking labour literally, physically, built the railroads, of the native peoples whose way of life was taken from them, and of the pioneers who tamed the land. And it's also the story of rich, powerful men who raised impossible sums of money, took impossible risks, and insisted on doing what seemed utterly impossible.

The Canadian railway was immensely expensive to build because of the insistence that it stay completely on Canadian land, and not go through the US. This meant somehow building on the Canadian shield and two completely unexplored mountain ranges - and makes for one eye-popping scene after the next.

In those days, bankruptcy was common in railway building, and most railroad owners would profit hugely off it. But with the Canadian Pacific Railway on the brink of financial collapse, the two men who had the most invested - emotionally, psychologically and financially - put their own personal fortunes into the pot, saying if the railway fails, they cannot be left with one dollar. Not your typical robber baron stuff.

Thanks to Pierre Berton, I learned a tremendous amount about the early Canada. Before the railway, Canada was more idea than nation. The railway story is the story of the birth of a nation, and a portrait of a country in its infancy.

Now I'm fully glutted on history, and my brain needs a rest. (I like to alternate between reading nonfiction and novels.) I have a small stack of novels waiting for me, beginning with Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. If I run across anything really great, I'll be sure and post.

3 comments:

Lone Primate said...

Thanks to Pierre Berton, I learned a tremendous amount about the early Canada. Before the railway, Canada was more idea than nation. The railway story is the story of the birth of a nation, and a portrait of a country in its infancy.

Yeah... it should be required reading in certain parts of the country who seem to feel they sprung fully-formed from the earth on great spurts of oil, and that the rest of Canada contributed nothing but greed and avarice and showing up with knife and fork and a napkin tied around their necks to soak up the drool.

andrea said...

Now I feel guilty for having never read it, but now I promise to. My great grandfather was the architect who designed most of the early train stations in western Canada, so I have no excuse.

L-girl said...

it should be required reading in certain parts of the country who seem to feel they sprung fully-formed from the earth on great spurts of oil, and that the rest of Canada contributed nothing

I was thinking that the whole time I was reading. The west was opened to settlers only with incredible sacrifice and struggle. Had John A Macdonald not insisted on an all-Canadian route, it's doubtful that that west would even be Canadian now.

My great grandfather was the architect who designed most of the early train stations in western Canada

Wow!! That is so cool. I'll tell you, these books are fascinating. Parts are a bit dry - I find reading about business dealing (stocks, bonds, loans) difficult - but most of it reads like an adventure story. Berton brings it all to life.