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Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Casual Critic — Tommy Thompson's America's Lost Treasure

Broaden your horizons, young man. Broaden your horizons. It’s a phrase I heard plenty growing up. No doubt we’ve all been told that we needed to broaden our horizons at one point in our lives. It’s generally been my experience that people spouting such advice merely didn’t like the things I liked, and were conceited enough to think their tastes had moral value while common folk like me just slummed around watching sports.

Despite such experiences, I took a recommendation to read Tommy Thompson’s America’s Lost Treasure to, yes, broaden my horizons. The introduction suggested the text was a look at the quarter century between Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph in 1837 and Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address through, as the subtitle reads, A Pictorial Chronicle of the Sinking and Recovery of the U.S. Mail Steamship Central America, The Ship of Gold. I’ve been wanting to read more history, and, though I’d never heard of the Central America, it seemed like an interesting way to learn about a specific time period. In fact, it was somewhat interesting, until Thompson abandoned his look at history and gushed over how incredibly cool it was to recover the ship.

Learning some of the details of the gold rush, including what life was like in the relatively unsettled west, the entrepreneurs seeking their fortunes from gold miners instead of gold, and the incredible lengths people went to just to get west, made for a very readable first half of the book. Uncovered firsthand accounts from survivors of the Central America were also interesting to read, filled with heroism, terror, and tragedy.

Unfortunately, the second half the book gets bogged down in the technicalities of recovering the ship. There were occasional interesting points about the artifacts found in the wreckage, and I admit my appreciation of the intricacies of discovery, sea life, the educational possibilities stemming from the recovery aren’t particularly interesting to me. However, the writing and even some of the accompanying photographs had a self-congratulatory tone that made the reading especially tedious at times.

The biggest criticism I have of the book is Thompson’s open, enthusiastic acknowledgement that the expedition lusted after the gold to be recovered. Actually, it was the juxtaposition of the talk of educational opportunities and historical significance with the lust for gold. I like money as much as the next guy — probably more — but don’t tell me the expedition has historical significance to justify a gold grab.

Considering the route Thompson took with the book, the total lack of discussion of how or why gold has been given such value by humans was disappointing. William Chase, described as one of the marooned, is quoted as saying that in the terror of the ship sinking, “the love of gold was forgotten.” In fact, many flung their gold-stuffed belts overboard to make themselves lighter as the boat sank. Yet, there’s not one of hint irony from the author who went to such extremes to recover the gold.

If you’re a history buff or fascinated by the sea, this book is for you. Otherwise, use it to broaden your horizons and decorate your coffee table.

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