Pierre Berton's The National Dream
is the perfect antidote to recommend to anyone who thinks history, especially Canada's history, is boring. Canada's best-known historian takes the seemingly unexciting story of the building of a railroad and tells it with the colour and humour of a master yarn-spinner. The National Dream
and its sequel, The Last Spike
, published in 1970 and 1971, were two of Canada's biggest best-selling books and were turned into an eight-part series on CBC-TV watched by more people than any other dramatic program in the network's history to that date. The Last Spike
won for Berton his third Governor General's Award for non-fiction.
The story he tells has no end of crazy and bizarre characters: sleazy politicians, robber baron-style railroad tycoons, corrupt newspaper publishers, many of them considered the political and economic founders of Canada. Somehow, in a few short years, this band of misfits managed to build the world's longest railway across a vast, unforgiving land, much of which was unknown to non-Natives. The project left a mixed legacy. Opposition politicians denounced it as "insane" and "reckless," accurately predicting that the massive spending would lead to a flood of corruption. It almost bankrupted the country and provoked the displacement of the Native peoples of the Prairies from their ancestral lands. The railroad became the spine of an empire, an imperial highway linking Britain with Asia, conveniently paid for by the Canadian public. On the other hand, the railway dream is also credited with binding together a fledgling nation with a steel ribbon. "The dream," wrote Berton, "would be the filling up of the empty spaces and the dawn of a new Canada." --Alex Roslin
"Pierre Berton is a chronicler of the first order who has brought photographic clarity to the great and the corrupt, to the zealots and the dreamers associated with Canada's first great vision of linking steel threads to the nation's fabric."