Friday, October 31, 2014

Transcontinental Sidetrack

Having gained some time in the main line of my reading schedule, I took the opportunity over the last couple of weeks to take a sidetrack with Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World. This book gave me everything I expected from Stephen Ambrose and the story of the transcontinental railroad: both the good and the bad.

First, the bad. Ambrose’s writing mechanics could stand some work in the roundhouse. I read too many sentences (one would have been too many for me) starting with “This was because.” Why create a whole new sentence only to begin it with the vague and grammatically imprecise “this” and the dull “was”? What’s wrong with a simple “because” joining a new clause at the end of the previous sentence? Or why not use a participial construction? I suppose I could have started today’s post this way:
I took the opportunity over the last couple of weeks to take a sidetrack. This was because I had gained some time in the main line of my reading schedule.
But I wouldn’t have been happy with myself.

I know Ambrose needs to keep things a little folksy to reach a broader audience. And maybe reaching that goal means keeping his sentences fairly short and simple. I don’t even mind the colloquialisms he tosses into his commentary now and then. But I rolled my eyes when I had to read “Good luck with that” twice within two pages.

Come to think of it, Ambrose repeats himself a lot. Maybe he wrote the book in little chunks as he researched the various topics and then put it all in order at the end. Doing things that way, he might easily forget what he’s already mentioned in other places. But of all Ambrose’s faults, this is the most forgivable. If Stephen Ambrose wants to repeat stories, he should repeat them, because Stephen Ambrose tells great stories. Nothing Like It in the World has the story of Hell on Wheels, the portable city of vice that followed the end of the Union Pacific line as it progressed across Nebraska and Wyoming. There’s the story of the Chinese immigrants who worked tirelessly on the Central Pacific without skipping to Nevada after their first paycheck to mine silver. There’s the story of Doc Durant and his crooked scheme for siphoning the profits of the Union Pacific to his own pocket.

The best story in this book is one that Ambrose repeated, and I’m glad he did: the second telling is much better. The story centers on a competition between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific to lay the most track in a single day. The UP laid four miles one day, so the CP came back with six. When the UP laid eight, thinking the achievement untoppable, the CP came up with a scheme to assure victory. Waiting until the Union Pacific came within about eight miles of the designated meeting place at Promontory Point, the Central Pacific workers laid ten miles of track in one day. The rival company couldn’t even try to beat the mark since they didn’t have ten miles left to lay.

In spite of all the stylistic clunkiness, Ambrose’s histories instruct and entertain. He celebrates hard work, ingenuity, honesty, bravery, the multicultural roots of the United States, and other ideals I celebrate with him – at least in the books of his that I've read: Nothing Like It in the World, Into the Wild Blue, and Undaunted Courage. (I don’t know what he does in his books about Nixon.) So I’ll probably take another sidetrack with him somewhere a couple years down the line.

And that wraps up the review of my recent ride on (warning: silly pun in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . ) the Reading Railroad.

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