Engaging labor history, and an astute examination of American policies.

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THE CANAL BUILDERS

MAKING AMERICA’S EMPIRE AT THE PANAMA CANAL

The Path Between the Seas, viewed from a decidedly different angle.

Most histories focus on the larger-than-life men who conceived the Panama Canal, particularly President Theodore Roosevelt and chief engineers John Stevens and George Goethals. Greene (History/Univ. of Maryland; Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881–1917, 1998, etc.) shifts the focus away from those at the top, instead telling the story of rank-and-file workers on the ground. The incredibly diverse labor force assembled between 1904 and 1914, tens of thousands strong, included Americans, West Indians, Mexicans and workers from all over South America and Europe. When they arrived in the Canal Zone, they soon realized that conditions were brutal. The weather was hot, the work was extremely dangerous, the food was barely edible and early on there were outbreaks of yellow fever, bubonic plague, malaria and pneumonia. An estimated 15,000 workers died during the course of the building project, mostly nonwhites. American officials imported segregationist and anti-union policies from home; nonwhite workers, particularly West Indians, received far lower pay. Dissatisfaction eventually flared up into strikes and threats of riots. The author deftly details how hard-line American policy clashed with the reality of managing an army of laborers in a foreign land. Officials were eventually forced to revise their policies and make concessions to workers on many issues. Greene also examines the resentment generated by American colonialism, ably illustrated with the story of a 1912 riot in Panama City between American personnel and Panamanians that caused the death of one U.S. citizen. American imperialism was frequently at odds with American idealism, the author skillfully demonstrates. A telling quote from Secretary of State Elihu Root conveys the essential: “The Constitution follows the flag, but it does not catch up with it.”

Engaging labor history, and an astute examination of American policies.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-59420-201-8

Page Count: 458

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2008

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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At nearly 1,000 pages, Chernow delivers a deeply researched, everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know biography, but few readers...

GRANT

A massive biography of the Civil War general and president, who “was the single most important figure behind Reconstruction.”

Most Americans know the traditional story of Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885): a modest but brutal general who pummeled Robert E. Lee into submission and then became a bad president. Historians changed their minds a generation ago, and acclaimed historian Chernow (Washington: A Life, 2010, etc.), winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, goes along in this doorstop of a biography, which is admiring, intensely detailed, and rarely dull. A middling West Point graduate, Grant performed well during the Mexican War but resigned his commission, enduring seven years of failure before getting lucky. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was the only West Point graduate in the area, so local leaders gave him a command. Unlike other Union commanders, he was aggressive and unfazed by setbacks. His brilliant campaign at Vicksburg made him a national hero. Taking command of the Army of the Potomac, he forced Lee’s surrender, although it took a year. Easily elected in 1868, he was the only president who truly wanted Reconstruction to work. Despite achievements such as suppressing the Ku Klux Klan, he was fighting a losing battle. Historian Richard N. Current wrote, “by backing Radical Reconstruction as best he could, he made a greater effort to secure the constitutional rights of blacks than did any other President between Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson.” Recounting the dreary scandals that soiled his administration, Chernow emphasizes that Grant was disastrously lacking in cynicism. Loyal to friends and susceptible to shady characters, he was an easy mark, and he was fleeced regularly throughout his life. In this sympathetic biography, the author continues the revival of Grant’s reputation.

At nearly 1,000 pages, Chernow delivers a deeply researched, everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know biography, but few readers will regret the experience. For those seeking a shorter treatment, turn to Josiah Bunting’s Ulysses S. Grant (2004).

Pub Date: Oct. 10, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-59420-487-6

Page Count: 928

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: July 12, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2017

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