Monday, December 13, 2010

Guest Review: Colossus

Summary: As breathtaking today as the day it was completed, Hoover Dam not only shaped the American West but helped launch the American century. In the depths of the Great Depression it became a symbol of American resilience and ingenuity in the face of crisis, putting thousands of men to work in a remote desert canyon and bringing unruly nature to heel. 

Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Michael Hiltzik uses the saga of the dam's conception, design, and construction to tell the broader story of America's efforts to come to grips with titanic social, economic, and natural forces. For embodied in the dam's striking machine-age form is the fundamental transformation the Depression wrought in the nation's very culture—the shift from the concept of rugged individualism rooted in the frontier days of the nineteenth century to the principle of shared enterprise and communal support that would build the America we know today. In the process, the unprecedented effort to corral the raging Colorado River evolved from a regional construction project launched by a Republican president into the New Deal's outstanding—and enduring—symbol of national pride. 

Yet the story of Hoover Dam has a darker side. Its construction was a gargantuan engineering feat achieved at great human cost, its progress marred by the abuse of a desperate labor force. The water and power it made available spurred the development of such great western metropolises as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and San Diego, but the vision of unlimited growth held dear by its designers and builders is fast turning into a mirage. 

In Hiltzik's hands, the players in this epic historical tale spring vividly to life: President Theodore Roosevelt, who conceived the project; William Mulholland, Southern California's great builder of water works, who urged the dam upon a reluctant Congress; Herbert Hoover, who gave the dam his name though he initially opposed its construction; Frank Crowe, the dam's renowned master builder, who pushed his men mercilessly to raise the beautiful concrete rampart in an inhospitable desert gorge. Finally there is Franklin Roosevelt, who presided over the ultimate completion of the project and claimed the credit for it. Hiltzik combines exhaustive research, trenchant observation, and unforgettable storytelling to shed new light on a major turning point of twentieth-century history. -- Free Press

When I first heard about COLOSSUS: HOOVER DAM AND THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY by Michael Hiltzik, I thought it might be interesting. I had visited the Hoover Dam years ago and was blown away by the entire structure. Unfortunately, I knew that I probably wouldn't get to this book any time in the near future! Thank goodness for my dad. Not only was he interested in learning more about the history of the Hoover Dam, but he also took time from his busy life to actually read COLOSSUS. Here are his thoughts:

In Colossus, Hoover Dam and the Making of American History, Michael Hiltzik provides the reader with a terrific narrative history of the building of Hoover Dam. In telling his story the author relates the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the Hoover Dam project. Hiltzik’s story is particularly timely in that the country is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the dedication of Hoover Dam

Colossus charts the history from the 1850s describing the multiple efforts to tame the Colorado River and supply a reliable water source initially to the farmers in the Imperial Valley and ultimately to the seven western states claiming a legal right to the Colorado River water. In the early 1900s the Black Canyon, the actual location of the Hoover Dam, and Boulder Canyon were being investigated as possible sites for a dam for flood control, irrigation and hydroelectric power. The Bolder Canyon Project, a total water management project for the Colorado River, was finally approved by Congress in 1928, six years after the initial bill was introduced. Construction began in early 1931 and finished in 1936, two years ahead of schedule. Interestingly, the dam began as an idea during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency and was completed during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, 36 years and six presidents later.

Hiltzik describes how the construction of the Hoover Dam was one of the most significant engineering accomplishments in American history. It was completed in spite of legal entanglements, political and economic obstacles, unproven engineering techniques, workers’ hardships and horrific work conditions. The size of the project dwarfed all prior dam constructions and the summer temperature created engineering problems never previously encountered. Poor work and safety conditions resulted in the official death of 112 workers while many more died of what was described as unrelated work causes. In a strange twist of fate the first recorded death during the construction period was J. G. Tierney and the last death 13 years later was his son, Patrick.

Hiltzik explains that Hoover Dam served as the key element in the development of the American West. He recounts in significant detail the building of the Dam during the Great Depression and how it became a symbol of America’s technical know-how and can do spirit. Ironically it also became a symbol of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal even though the project was not part of his New Deal program.

It’s clear that Hiltzik did a tremendous amount of historical research in writing Colossus but, to me, that alone isn’t the real value of the novel. Hiltzik’s ability to bring to life the leading characters involved in building Hoover Dam and to make the reader feel the social and political dynamics of building that Dam during the desperate times of the Great Depression is the novel’s most meaningful contribution.

I recommend Colossus to anyone interested in the history of the United States. This is probably not the right book for those readers only interested in the technical aspects of the engineering and construction of the Dam.

Thanks to Booking Pap Pap for his terrific review and to the publisher for sending a review copy.


Veens said...

This sounds like a must read for history buffs. I will keep this one in mind. Great review!

Anonymous said...

Wow, this sounds incredible! I like that the book gets into the human labor component which, I'm sure was a huge part of this huge project.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I've heard so many good things about this book. And imagine a project like that finished ahead of schedule! We were lucky enough to drive over the dam when the new road was in progress and see how they were doing it, and it was just so amazing.

bermudaonion said...

Carl's always wanted to see the Hoover Dam and he enjoys history, so I bet he would enjoy this book.

Anonymous said...

This sounds fascinating. I love the back stories of history.