Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Book log 25: The Sons of the Profits

There’s No Business Like Grow Business: The Seattle Story 1851–1901

by William C. Speidel
There’s a well-known tourist thing in downtown Seattle called the Underground Tour, about the abandoned part of the city that was literally built over after a fire leveled a chunk of the downtown core back in June 1889. (I had to look up the date. I’d be embarrassed, but...ah hell, I’m only vaguely embarrassed.) Because of the unique contours of the business core (let’s just say that Seattle’s a very hilly place, then and now), there are parts of a historical past that remained hidden. Author Bill Speidel, who was a native of those parts, decided to explore and eventually exploit, in the process building up a tour of a time long past.

This book came about from those tours. Or maybe vice versa. In any case, Speidel’s spiel, which we first heard when we took the tour 30 years ago, echoes in this book (conveniently offered for sale at the end of the tour. What are the odds!). We bought the book after the tour, again 30 years ago. My husband read the book at the time. I did not because as a native, I’d heard it all, or at least a version of it that I passed a test or two about. I figured I would read the book when I had a chance.

Thirty years later…yes, at long last! We went on the tour again when we had friends come into town who expressed interest (he was always very fond of the Darren McGavin TV movie The Night Strangler, later the TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker). The underground he saw in the tour didn’t have much in common with those works of fiction, but with a stretch of the imagination you could sort of see it. Anyway, finally inspired by that trip down history lane and blessed with more time than 30 years ago, I finally got around to reading the book.

The first thing I noticed (as I am wont to do these days), the book needs a stronger editor, if it had one at all. After I winced through the beginning (ellipses weren’t made to be used that way!), the style settled down and the story took hold. The title refers to the earliest pioneers who settled this particular area, who came with the most base of motives: to make money. As Speidel observed, those founders were there for the buck and if there had been any other way to make some, they would have done that instead of founding the Emerald City by the bay. At times tongue in cheek and deadly serious, Speidel looks at the quality of character that went into the construction of the city, the shenanigans, the cheerful corruption. Perseverance was the name of the game, we’re told, and you know what? It worked. This is a fun book, and I’m only sorry I didn’t have time before now to read it!

COMING UP: The Sound on the Page: Style and voice in writing by Ben Yagoda!

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