Saturday, July 25, 2009

Book Ten: Fordlandia by Greg Grandin

This sounds like an urban legend gone bad (do any go good?), so I had to read about Henry Ford's attempt to build "the American Dream" in the jungles of Brazil. The financial impetus was to grow rubber for tires and other auto parts, but by the time he started rubber prices were low and the need was no longer there. But Ford still decided to create a town to help civilize the jungle and bring American happiness worldwide. It failed of course. The most interesting part of this book is the issue of Ford trying to create the ideal small town his production line had ruined. Thanks to affordable cars the American dream was on the road and Ford never seemed to reconcile with himself for killing what he loved.

Building towns was something of an occupation for Ford. Alberta and Iron Mountain in Michigan are two industrial examples, and his Greenfield Village was nothing less than his American version of his Fordlandia experiment -- sans rubber. Other companies had done this as well, but Ford was committed to recreating the Midwest in Brazil. He wanted straight roads, Cape Cod houses, a church, a town square, and a dance hall for all those square dances. He made the people overseeing it get rid of the thatched roofs and put on tin roofs, thus creating a plethora of house-sized ovens. I could go on, but picture everything you think ridiculous in such an attempt and it probably occurred.

Of course, the rubber plantations did not work out either. Rubber trees grow wild in the Amazon, but put them in a plantation and they share bugs and diseases quickly. Not that he gave up easily. In fact he never did give up -- it was his grandson who finally gave it all back to Brazil nearly 20 years after they started.

Grandin does a good job of avoiding the obvious themes of humanity vs nature, or the unbridled ego of a man who thinks his way of life fits elsewhere. Instead, he focuses our attention back on Ford in the U.S. and parallels how his failed attempts at building in Brazil mirrored the erosion of his company and the life he held dear.

Unfortunately, Grandin spends too much time on subplots and at times the book is a stuggle to read. He tends to repeat the same information too much, and if I read one more time about Henry Wickham's stealing of rubber tree seeds to create the Southeast Asia rubber industry, I swore the book was going threw the window. (Besides, what can you expect from a man sharing the same last name as the villain of a Jane Austen novel!) In one chapter he makes a half-hearted attempt to draw an analogy with Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but fails to make it stick. He is a professor and has done his research, so he figures he might as well share it with us. A bit more focus on the project without the extras would help.

However, all this gave me a fuller and much less pleasant understanding of Ford than I previously had. Grandin presents a balanced portrait of a bright, entrepurniaral person who cared about his workers on one hand, but was anti-Semitic and not opposed to having a union symphathizer beaten. Ford is a man of great contradictions who, because he had the resources, could make those contradictions into realities which everyone but him seemed to see. In the end the book is a tragic tale of Ford himself, with Fordlandia being just one of a list of things which went wrong in the final decades of his life.

If you are interested watch this 15 minute interview with Grandin and you'll get the gist of the book and the Fordlandia project.

Read this review at Blogcritics.

Reading Challenges
No doubt about, I thought I was going to fail this week. This was a tough book to read with a lot of information I was not all that interested in. Fortunately, just when I thought I would give in, Grandin would get back into it and I was interested again. The week itself was not too busy, so I'm glad I had the extra time needed to read this one. I can say that if I was not doing the book-a-week I would have either given up or at least spent another week on it. After my "reading high" of last week it felt a bit more like homework this week.

But the last two days brought an added bonus. Reading glasses! I'm already officially old, but now I have the glasses to prove it. The eye doctor told me reading glasses would do the trick and to save money by buying them at the drugstore. So I bought a pair and found the reading to be MUCH less tiring. Of course, my three-year-old still thinks I'm just goofing around when I put them on, but he'll adjust.

Next Up
So after a tough week I'm hoping Susan Choi's American Woman is a easy and enjoyable read. Choi is coming to Hope College this year as part of the Visiting Writers Series and I always try to read what our guests are writing (so I can tell people to attend with good reason).


Happy reading!

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