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Book Review: Fordlandia by Greg Grandin

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This sounds like an urban legend gone bad (do any go good?), so one needs to read about Henry Ford's attempt to build "the American Dream" in the jungles of Brazil. The financial impetus was to grow rubber for tires and other auto parts, but, by the time he started, rubber prices were low and the need was no longer there. But Ford still decided to create a town to help civilize the jungle and bring American happiness worldwide. It failed, of course. The most interesting part of this book is the issue of Ford trying to create the ideal small town that his production line had ruined. Thanks to affordable cars the American dream was on the road, and Ford never seemed to reconcile with himself for killing what he loved.

Building towns was something of an occupation for Ford. Alberta and Iron Mountain in Michigan are two industrial examples, and his Greenfield Village was nothing less than his American version of his Fordlandia experiment — sans rubber. Other companies had done this as well, but Ford was committed to recreating the Midwest in Brazil. He wanted straight roads, Cape Cod houses, a church, a town square, and a dance hall for all those square dances. He made the people overseeing it get rid of the thatched roofs and put on tin roofs, thus creating a plethora of house-sized ovens. The examples could go on, but picture everything you think ridiculous in such an attempt, and it probably occurred.

Of course, the rubber plantations did not work out either. Rubber trees grow wild in the Amazon, but put them in a plantation, and they share bugs and diseases quickly. Not that he gave up easily. In fact, he never did give up — it was his grandson who finally gave it all back to Brazil nearly 20 years after they started.

Grandin does a good job of avoiding the obvious themes of humanity vs. nature, or the unbridled ego of a man who thinks his way of life fits elsewhere. Instead, he focuses our attention back on Ford in the U.S. and parallels how his failed attempts at building in Brazil mirrored the erosion of his company and the life he held dear.

Unfortunately, Grandin spends too much time on subplots, and at times the book is a struggle to read. He tends to repeat the same information too much, and if I read one more time about Henry Wickham's stealing of rubber tree seeds to create the Southeast Asia rubber industry, my reading was ready to end. In one chapter he makes a half-hearted attempt to draw an analogy with Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but fails to make it stick. He is a professor and has done his research, so he figures he might as well share it with us. A bit more focus on the project without the extras would help.

However, all this gave me a fuller and much less pleasant understanding of Ford than I previously had. Grandin presents a balanced portrait of a bright, entrepreneurial person who cared about his workers on one hand, but was anti-Semitic and not opposed to having a union sympathizer beaten. Ford is a man of great contradictions who, because he had the resources, could make those contradictions into realities. In the end, the book is a tragic tale of Ford himself, with Fordlandia being just one of a list of things which went wrong in the final decades of his life.

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About Derek Emerson