what i'm reading: pierre berton

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.


kelly said...

If you're interested in Canadiana, read anything by Will Ferguson. Im especially fond of Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw, How to be a Canadian, and Bastards & Boneheads.

laura k said...

Thanks Kelly. Will Ferguson is often recommended here. :)

I'm more of a serious history reader, but I'll give it a try one of these days.

theduckthief said...

Yeah, there was that whole Pacific Scandal that involved our very first PM and the railroad that was built on cheap, foreign labour.

laura k said...

Very true. All railroads were built on cheap foreign labour. It brought the Irish and the Chinese to this continent. Irish labour dug all the canals and built the bridges, too.

But the scandals are wild. It goes from one to the next. I like 19th Century politics, very crazy.

teflonjedi said...

Yeah, BC threatened to secede, IIRC, because the feds were defaulting on their promise of building the railway across the country to BC (I believe one of the terms of joining Confederation). Also, IIRC, the BC government actually went as far as to pass the law of secession, but the law died on the books because the law was never declared.

Hope I've got that all right.....

laura k said...

Hope I've got that all right.....

You do!

Thing is, the Feds promise was insanely optimistic, all but impossible to meet. John A MacDonald wanted to build the railroad in the worst way, and he wanted BC in the country, so he optimistically (crazily) promised the impossible.

When it looked like it couldn't happen in the specified time frame, BC was furious and ready to become part of the US.

It was amazing to see secession being threatened - only a few years after the country was born!

theduckthief said...

Yeah, he was worried that the US would sneak up and take BC. The only way BC would join was if they brought the railroad to them.

sharonapple88 said...

So, almost from the start we've been falling apart.

laura k said...

So, almost from the start we've been falling apart.

More that the issues that run through Canada now have always been there. That's how I see it, anyway.

According to Berton, Canada was more of an idea than a nation at the time. The new western province (BC) was totally isolated from the rest of the country, which was all in the east. Macdonald wanted desperately to build the railroad to bring the whole country together.

Macdonald was adamant that the RR only go through Canada, no US land, which made it a incredibly harder to build. But he felt the country would never be independent if it had to rely on the US to for transportation and communication.

This was the most important thing to him. People thought he was nuts, but he was the only one with the vision to see how important that was.

I'm sure you know all this already... I'm just jazzed from learning this stuff.