Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Commodore: Review

Cornelius Vanderbilt was a dirt poor Staten Island boy.  He works side-by-side with his father--a down and out farmer who can't make the farm pay and who often has schemes that don't work out.  Cornele (as he's known in the family) watches the ships come into harbor from all over the world.  He knows the name of every one and he knows that one day he'll be part of that world that brings the goods of the world to New York's shore.  His father scoffs at him and tries to discourage him and by the time Cornele is 16 he wants out.  He's determined to go to sea--but his mother doesn't want him to go.  He arranges to borrow $100 from her to buy a boat and start his own "Staten Island Ferry" business.  He promises to pay her back and give her a return of $1000.  He's as good as his word.  This is the beginning of Vanderbilt's spectacular climb from the poorest family in town to the richest man in the world.  

With nothing more than a 5th grade education, he uses his wits and his infallible nose for the right deal at the right time to repeatedly plunge into the next best thing--from the Staten Island Ferry to a shipping business based on a fleet of sailboats to learning all there was to know about steamships to running supplies during the War of 1812 to a switch to railroads when that what the shipping business needed.  When he got knocked down--which was rare--he just got right back up and waded back in to work.  Telling him something couldn't be done when he had set his mind on it was the surest way to guarantee that it would be done....and at tremendous profit.

Simon Sobo's novel, Commodore, tells us Vanderbilt's story in Cornele's own voice.  The Commodore is at death's door.  He has turned reporters away repeatedly, but finally allows Michael Burch to come and listen to the story of a lifetime.  The public is hungry to know everything about the richest man on earth--how he did it; what his secret is...because if they know that, maybe they can do it too.  As the book says: People couldn't get enough of him in their newspapers. One of their own showed 'em it can get done. One of 'em that wouldn't take nothing from no one.  He was the Michael Jordan of his day.  He simply refused to not win.

Sobo tells a compelling story and Vanderbilt comes to life as the reader follows him from the farm to the mansion in Washington Place where he will see the end of his days and face all the demons of his past.  Cornele wants to make peace with his father and wife...but will telling his tale to Burch help him accomplish that?  

This is a fascinating book about a remarkable man who fought for every inch.  An interesting look at life when America was young and industry was just beginning.  But it's not for the verbally squeamish--Vanderbilt doesn't pull any punches and he has no censor when it comes to language.  The book probably has the most f-bombs of any I ever read.  If that's the way the Commodore spoke, then I wouldn't have wanted to be in the same room with him for long.  But the book does its job--it paints a raw and real picture of where Vanderbilt came from and who he was. Four stars.

Thanks to Jocelyn of Kelley & Hall Book Publicity for providing me with this review copy. 

[Disclaimer: My review policy is posted on my blog, but just to reiterate....The book was offered to me for impartial review and I have received no payment of any kind. All comments are entirely my own honest opinion.]

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