A solid and, yes, concise look at the railroad’s past, with a rousing call at the end for a new and improved rail system to...

THE GREAT RAILROAD REVOLUTION

THE HISTORY OF TRAINS IN AMERICA

Popular historian Wolmar (Engines of War: How Wars Were Won & Lost on the Railways, 2010) charts the sometimes haphazard, sometimes avaricious, sometimes puzzling history of America’s railroads.

“I realize that it is somewhat cheeky of me, a Brit, to try to write a concise history of American railroads,” he writes early on. Cheeky, perhaps, but as he also writes, an outsider’s perspective on what has been seen as a consummately American adventure can be helpful—particularly since world history isn’t without comparable ventures, such as the building of railroads across Siberia and Africa. Yet, as Wolmar rightly notes, the railroads played a key role in uniting the United States, even if one of the signal moments of railroad history wasn’t quite all it was cracked up to be. That is, the building of the transcontinental line, as commemorated by the driving of a golden spike in Utah in 1869, was a symbolic gesture of sorts; it wasn’t until a bridge was built over the Missouri River three years later that a person could truly travel across the continent without leaving the rails. Further, “there never has been a single railroad company stretching from East Coast to West.” All of this does nothing to diminish the accomplishment of introducing the new technology of the railroad and extending it over thousands of miles in the space of just three decades, work carried out by millions of man-hours of hard labor but planned out and capitalized on by men whose names are bywords today, such as Carnegie, Mellon and Stanford. Wolmar acknowledges the “corruption, cheating, purloining of government funds, reckless building practices, and astonishing greed” that went into the making of the transcontinental system, but his purpose is less political than historian Richard White’s sweeping condemnation of the robber barons of yore in Railroaded (2011). Wolmar, it seems, has no purpose other than crafting a critical but admiring study of a triumph of engineering, and in this he has succeeded.

A solid and, yes, concise look at the railroad’s past, with a rousing call at the end for a new and improved rail system to carry the nation forward.

Pub Date: Sept. 25, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-61039-179-5

Page Count: 448

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 22, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

TOMBSTONE

THE EARP BROTHERS, DOC HOLLIDAY, AND THE VENDETTA RIDE FROM HELL

Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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A unique, inspiring story by a member of the Greatest Generation.

CODE TALKER

A firsthand account of how the Navajo language was used to help defeat the Japanese in World War II.

At the age of 17, Nez (an English name assigned to him in kindergarten) volunteered for the Marines just months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Growing up in a traditional Navajo community, he became fluent in English, his second language, in government-run boarding schools. The author writes that he wanted to serve his country and explore “the possibilities and opportunities offered out there in the larger world.” Because he was bilingual, he was one of the original 29 “code talkers” selected to develop a secret, unbreakable code based on the Navajo language, which was to be used for battlefield military communications on the Pacific front. Because the Navajo language is tonal and unwritten, it is extremely difficult for a non-native speaker to learn. The code created an alphabet based on English words such as ant for “A,” which were then translated into its Navajo equivalent. On the battlefield, Navajo code talkers would use voice transmissions over the radio, spoken in Navajo to convey secret information. Nez writes movingly about the hard-fought battles waged by the Marines to recapture Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and others, in which he and his fellow code talkers played a crucial role. He situates his wartime experiences in the context of his life before the war, growing up on a sheep farm, and after when he worked for the VA and raised a family in New Mexico. Although he had hoped to make his family proud of his wartime role, until 1968 the code was classified and he was sworn to silence. He sums up his life “as better than he could ever have expected,” and looks back with pride on the part he played in “a new, triumphant oral and written [Navajo] tradition,” his culture's contribution to victory.

A unique, inspiring story by a member of the Greatest Generation.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-425-24423-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Dutton Caliber

Review Posted Online: July 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2011

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