Book Reviewed by Carol Taylor
This sweeping historical novel follows aspiring railroad engineer, William
Roberson, from his Jamaican homeland in 1897 at 16, to Panama, to help build the
Panama Canal, the biggest, most perilous, and most renowned ship canal in
history. With White Gold, Garvey continues the story he started in his first
novel Panama Fever: Digging Down Gold Mountain.
Garvey is a relative of the Jamaican hero, Marcus Garvey. While going through his father’s papers, he learned that his grandfather had been a railroad engineer who helped construct the Panama Canal. This prompted years of research that led to Panama Fever and White Gold, his chronicle of the monumental effort to link the world’s two great oceans.
The Panama Canal is a 48-mile ship canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and is a key conduit for the international maritime trade. France started work on the canal in 1861, but was defeated by tropical diseases; malaria, cholera and typhoid fever, to which the “noirs” were supposedly “immune”. The United States took over in 1904, and took a decade to complete the canal, which officially opened in 1914. Spanning almost 30 years the Panama Canal was one of the longest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken and it greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The creation of the Panama Canal was a phenomenal undertaking that continues to this day.
In the late 1800s West Indians and African Americans flocked to Panama to work and try to thrive under racist colonial and Jim Crow segregation treatment by whites. Years into working on the canal, Roberson struggles to make a living but finds himself at odds with his new wife Winifred, and his Panamanian mistress Isabella in whose arms he finds solace when Winifred returns to Jamaica.
White Gold tells the story of the engineering mastery, technical expertise and sheer manpower that went into the conception and creation of the canal, while also telling the stories of the men who felt driven to make it happen. Among them is Edward Bower, a master mechanic who leaves Jamaica on his second trip to work on the canal, and takes Roberson under his wing. Roberson’s older cousin Thomas Judah who, chafing under the colonial yolk in Jamaica left years earlier and made his fortune in gold but lost his best friend to the mine. As the bastard son of a rich man who jilted his mother to marry another, Judah was well off in Jamaica, but sought to make a name for himself outside of that of his wealthy father who never claimed him. He secretly helps Roberson, an orphan, while he is in Panama by making introductions; one is to Henri Duvay, the French engineer who stayed in Panama because of his obsession with finishing the canal. Rounding out this cast of characters who could be no more different from each other is 15 year-old Boy-Boy who leaves Barbados for Panama to join his father in hopes of making enough money to pay for college.
I enjoyed their stories in White Gold and the way they each tell the overarching story of the Panama Canal. At almost 500 pages, in less able hands, White Gold could have been a daunting and arduous read. Luckily Garvey’s meticulously detailed account is also equally colorful and reminiscent of place and time in telling a story that helped to shaped not only Panama but also the world.
Garvey is a very good writer with a certain flair but this is a double-edged sword. I wished that I wasn’t so aware of his sometimes densely overblown writing, which at times, intruded on his quite excellent storytelling. “Thornton leveled him with a fish-eyed stare reputed to turn the most resolute native spine into jelly, but to his annoyance the lad stood firm. ‘One moment,’ he finally snarled in a tone that would curdle cream, then vanished behind the dark sliding doors of His Excellency’s inner offices.”
White Gold’s account of the building of the canal is an in-depth history lesson and will appeal to history and historical fiction lovers, and anyone who has ever left their native land to make a better life. His descriptions of turn of the century Panama will transport you to the squalor of a dirt-poor people and the sweeping grandeur of a lush and mineral rich country that made up, in equal measures, Panama at that time. A riff on the interplay of capitalism, colonialism, racism, and classism; White Gold is an entertaining and educational sojourn to a time and place that changed history and the people who helped to do it.