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'When America First Met China' and 'The Great Railroad Revolution'

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Both books are hobbled by their focus on details and events instead of storytelling and scintillating personalities. Still, they're both authoritative accounts, managing to fascinate through their bounty of facts. And at one point, their stories intersect.

The Great Railroad Revolution chronicles the American history of trains and tracks, the greatest advances in transportation since a prehistoric R&D department came up with the wheel.

Christian Wolmar, a British railway scholar, argues in his first sentence that "America was made by the railroads." He thinks they united the country, turned it into an industrial sensation and provided the spark for world dominance.

That's quite a case to make for the chugga-chugga-choo-choo. Wolmar defends his thesis in dense prose and page-long paragraphs. The book is heavy sledding at times, but readers do get to take a broad voyage through railroad vs. railroad battles (even including espionage), the Civil War (in which trains were crucial), and the ultimate decline of trains.

Wolmar also provides glimpses of what it was like to travel by train decades ago: "ladies' coaches," tobacco-strewn floors, and dangerous sparks that threatened those who opened windows in stifling cars.

Railroads would, of course, bring the two sides of the US closer together, spurring the development of the western states. "When America First Met China," by Eric Jay Dolin, looks even further west – to the East.

Dolin, who's written books about the whaling and fur trades, explores the US-China commerce that began around the time of the American Revolution and never ended. As Dolin writes, the international trade "helped create the nation's first millionaires, instilled confidence in Americans in their ability to compete on the world stage, and spurred an explosion in shipbuilding."

Considering that the US has long held a highly positive opinion of itself, it's a delight to read to that it had company in China, which believed it was the "Middle Kingdom," below heaven but above all the other parts of the world. Foreigners were considered nothing more than barbarians.

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