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The Last Spike, winner of a Governor General's award for non-fiction, is the second of Pierre Berton's lively two-volume history of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Sequel to The National Dream, which was on best-seller lists for 80 weeks, The Last Spike finishes the story of how a fledgling nation pushed over 3,000 kilometres of steel across the continent in record time. Berton, author of 47 books and Canada's best-known historian, brings the tale to vivid life with comical anecdotes and sparkling characters. The massive railway was started only after a bitter and drawn-out national debate full of scandal, corruption, and backroom warfare. The wrangling wrecked the health of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who broke down with bowel cramps and could not be present when the Governor General finally approved the railway bill for which Macdonald had worked so hard.
Berton excels at recreating the hardscrabble, sometimes brutal realities of the 19th-century frontier and the bizarre, determined, and unscrupulous personalities behind "the Syndicate," the tycoons who masterminded the colossal project. Among them was W. C. Van Horne, the CPR's general manager, a ruthless, cold-eyed marathon poker enthusiast who constantly sucked on Havana cigars. Few Canadians were unaffected by the project. The railway became the spine of life west of Winnipeg for the next century and gave the CPR something close to absolute control over scores of communities. Some 800 villages, towns, and cities sprung up along the right of way, including Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, and Brandon. Construction also brought a flood of settlers, entrepreneurs, and speculators who displaced the First Nations peoples. Winnipeg, with a population of 16,000, had no fewer than 3,000 real estate dealers. "No other company, with the single exception of the Hudson's Bay, has had such an influence on the destinies of the nation," Berton writes in this deft and entertaining narrative. --Alex Roslin
"No novel could surpass The Last Spike for plot; no western for wildness... This is a great book."
"Lively, human and utterly absorbing."
—The Financial Post