Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review - Life and Death at Hoover Dam by Jerry Borrowman

A long, long time ago my husband and I lived in Idaho when the Teton Dam burst. This was a very dark time in our lives. My parents had to flee their home on the river, but even worse, my husband's father was killed in an accident due to the flood. Images are burnt into my mind of that day and the days that followed.

When Jerry Borrowman asked me to read his new book, at first I was reluctant because it had to do with a dam. But knowing what a great writer he is, I told him I would. I am so glad I did. Here is the back cover blurb.

It's 1931 and men are desperate for jobs. A lucky few will get to work in the searing heat of the Nevada desert on the massive Hoover Dam., the single largest public works project in history. Their goal is to tame the mighty Colorado River with a dam that towers sixty stories high from the base of the canyon to the crest of the dam. In doing so they will create the largest man-made lake in the world. Nothing like it has ever been built.

Life and Death at Hoover Dam tells the story of a handful of these men and the sacrifices they endured. From choking on gasoline fumes in 120 degree heat inside the five-stories-tall diversion tunnels to dangling by slender cables from the thousand-foot walls of Black Canyon, they will put their lives at risk. 

Meet the Conroy brothers: Dave, an engineer who works with Frank Crowe, legendary dam builder and chief engineer; Pete, his older brother who is as wild as the Colorado River itself. Pete is a crew foreman, supervising the high scalers who blast the sheer cliff walls into which the dam must be anchored and later in the massive forms where seven million tons of concrete will settle--some say to last a thousand years. Sean O'Donnell, a scrappy Irishman who worked on the Empire State Building in New York City but whose family desperately wants him to come home. And Tony Capelli, a farmer from Southern California whose land will become verdant and productive once the flow of the Colorado River water is assured. But prejudice is rampant for those with foreign names, even though American Citizens, and Tony will face mortal danger as he struggles to stay on the job and feed his family.

In the end, these men and the 20,000 others who worked on the dam will build a monument that makes possible the palm trees of Los Angeles and the desert oasis of Phoenix. This is the story of their lives--the men who built the matchless Hoover Dam.

Borrowman has a way of putting you in the scene. I worried for Sean as he dangled from ropes working on the tunnels. I routed for him as he went above and beyond the call of duty to save someone's life. And I sorrowed for him when he made a mistake that nearly cost a crewmen his life. The Conroy brothers were wonderful characters. David, the serious one, was weighted down with not only his job, but troubles at home. You can't help but feel how torn he was between his duty to keep the workers safe and the need to be a husband to his wife and father to his teenage son. His brother, Pete was a rascal you fall in love. He stands up for what he thinks is right, goes to the rescue of those less fortunate, and does it all in his cavalier way. But it was the character of Tony Capelli that really struck a cord with me. My great grandparents came from Italy. As I read about Tony's hardships and the discrimination he endured, I couldn't help but think of my ancestors and wonder what they went through.

Life and Death at Hoover Dam may have reminded me of the Teton Dam disaster and the haunting memories of that time in my life, but it also made me think of the many men who have placed themselves in harms way to make a better life for so many people. I loved this book and highly recommend it.

(I received a free copy of this book to review. I reviewed it because I liked it.)


  1. What an interesting sounding book and review.

    Sad to hear your father in law died in such a tragic way.

  2. Glynis,
    Jerry's book is awesome. It really made me appreciate the people who work behind the scenes in building a dam.



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