Review of Fordlandia by Greg Grandin
This book is up for a National Book Award for nonfiction. I was surprised to find that it was available at my local library. You would think that a National Book Award nomination would create a little more demand.
The title Fordlandiais not the catchiest title, but it is an appropriate title because it accurately reflects what this book is about. Fordlandia is the name given to a large parcel of land in Brazil purchased by Henry Ford for the purpose of growing rubber trees with the hope of using that rubber in his expanding automotive empire. It is also a story about what happens when Henry Ford tries to transplant a midwestern town in the middle of the Amazon.
Henry Ford was an enigma. He was responsible for transforming the manufacturing process. He brought transportation to the masses. Yet he held anti-semitic views. He was quick to make enemies. And he wasn't interested in the opinions of others, even when those opinions were to his benefit. The story of Fordlandia encompasses all of the great things about Henry Ford along with the bad.
The idea behind Fordlandia was for Ford to have control of its own rubber source. The car company already produced or manufactured just about everything that went into a Ford car. In today's lexicon, Henry Ford would be considered a control freak. In Fordlandia he took his desire for control to an extreme. His idea was to take what had worked so well for him in Michigan and reproduce that in the Amazon. Fordlandia was perhaps one of the first examples of the industrialization of agriculture. In this case, rubber trees. But Henry didn't stop there. His workers were going to eat and live exactly like the workers in Michigan. He had his engineers draw up plans for a modest size city complete with a hospital, paved streets, a dance hall that doubled as a movie theater, and even a golf course. The workers were to be fed healthy foods like wheat bread and unpolished rice. Workers were encouraged to grow gardens. Sounds good on paper. But the realities were that the climate, culture, and environment were so far removed from Michigan that the whole enterprise was doomed from the start.
They built houses for the workers to the same specs as houses in Michigan, with no consideration for the climate. The workers hated them. Ford managers tried to impose prohibition. The end result of all the rules and restrictions led to a revolt by the workers, who in one day destroyed much of what had taken years to build. Then there were the rubber trees. Ford didn't believe in experts. So he sent managers to the plantation who knew nothing about horticulture. They planted the trees too close together, which made them vulnerable to insects and leaf blight.
The author expertly jumps back and forth between Michigan and the Amazon. In this way we learn about the effects of the great depression on the Ford empire. Photos are spread throughout the book to put them in context. So when the author describes the incongruity of seeing a water tower jutting out above the trees in the middle of the Amazon there is a picture of the water tower on the same page. This might have taken a lot more time from a design standpoint, but it makes for a much more interesting reading experience.
While the story doesn't have a strong narrative structure like Seabiscuit or Lone Survivor, it represents the best that nonfiction has to offer. It's informative, entertaining, and has plenty of lessons to draw from. This is a worthy contender.