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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Saffire--The Building of the Panama Canal

SaffireSaffire by Sigmund Brouwer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My father took his first wife on a cruise through the Panama Canal shortly after it opened as his honeymoon gift. She hated it! She also hated their cross country road trip in the '30's. Needless to say the marriage didn't last and he eventually met my Mom who loved trips like these. As a result of both --stories of the honeymoon and the adventuresome spirit of my parents--traveling the Panama Canal has been on my bucket list forever. Still is but this book has given me a bit of a substitute and it may have to suffice.
For you see, though the title of the book refers to a young girl whose mother was accused of stealing jewelry and then running off and disappearing without a trace, the true focus of it is the Panama Canal. We see the extraordinary engineering feat its building was through the James Holt, a cattle rancher from Dakota, around Medora. He is a widower who finds himself in financial straits, so much so that he faces foreclosure on his ranch. His buddy, Theodore Roosevelt, promises him a bank note to pay his outstanding bills if he will just travel to Panama and report there to Col. Goethals, the man in charge of the construction. Holt neither knows why he was chosen nor what is expected of him in Panama, but since he gets the bank note just for hearing Goethals out, he boards a train and heads to New York, leaving his young daughter behind for the duration.
Everything about the trip to Panama from Dakota is described by Holt. His arrival in the Zone and his first encounter with my favorite character, T.B. Miskimon, who is as stiff as the starch in his shirt collar. He is Goethal's right hand man and as such is the perfect foil to the casual humor of the American cowboy, complete with felt hat and boots, that is Holt.
Throughout the story, which takes place over three days, Holt is sort of lost --he hasn't a clue what is going on or what he is supposed to be investigating for Goethals. The reader is lost as well--there are so many characters whose motivations and manipulations and connections are hazy. One thing was clear to me at first meeting Odalis Corillo but since the man's mystery is a plot point and used as a mystery I will not reveal what I knew at first sight.
There are many others to interact with Holt--Saffire, the young girl of the title implores him to help her find out the truth about her mother and Goethals encourages him to investigate that mystery as his cover.
He travels from the American controlled Zone into the heart of Panama City where his new position as a policeman in the Zone has no meaning. His questions get him into a life threatening situation from which he is rescued by Saffire and the lovely Raquel Sandoval, daughter of a prominent Panamanian. He had met her earlier in the company of a young man, her fiancé, Raoul Amador. At the same time, he is introduced to Robert ,a German tourist and Earl Harding, an American journalist. Throughout his investigations his path crosses with them both many times. In addition, there is William Nelson Cromwell, financier involved in the convoluted workings of corporate transfers involving the original Columbian interests prior to the Panamanian Revolution that broke Panama from Columbia. Also, the transfer of French control of the canal construction to the American corporation which was now completing the rail line as well as the locks and dam building taking place to make the connection of Atlantic to Pacific a reality.
Many of the characters in the telling are real historical figures, some of the story is true--the politics and engineering and sabotage --and some of it is not. All of it is fascinating and exciting. The love story is a bit far-fetched and not entirely well developed or necessary, but on the other hand, not terribly distracting or explicit. The first person narration adds an extra touch of immediacy and realism. All in all, a book worth reading, even, perhaps, a second time.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

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