"The Associates: Four capitalists who created California" by Richard Rayner

Brian Gongol

One-paragraph review: The story of the transcontinental railroad is (naturally) a great deal more vivid and expansive than the brief treatment it typically receives in the history textbooks. The enormity of the effort -- from its vast engineering scale to the enormous costs to the political trades required to make it a possibility -- truly deserves epic treatment. "The Associates" tells the story of one group of people corralled the resources to make part of that effort come true, starting from San Francisco and building east. While the book is thorough and the underlying story is fascinating, the text itself suffers from a lack of cohesion. In trying to tell the story of the four "associates" who led the effort (as well as the many other related characters in their orbit), the story becomes muddled in a way that takes away some of the shine. Pure curiosity will drive the interested historical enthusiast to finish the book, but it's difficult to look back from the end and offer a concise thesis statement for the work overall. Shorter chapters organized in a more linear chronological fashion would have made this a much easier story to digest (since it is really five stories in parallel -- one for each of the "associates" and one for the railroad itself).

Verdict: Worth reading for the avid fan of history, but more struggle than it ought to have been