three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
48-Sept-Oct-2010
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The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America

A-FurFortuneEmpireEric Jay Dolin, an environmental historian who holds a PhD in environmental policy and planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has also written a history of whaling in America.

The Topic: Fur, Dolin argues, played a major role in expanding the American frontier: one of the symbols of that expansion, Davy Crockett, is instantly recognized for his coonskin cap. But fur and the animals it came from never recognized national heroes or boundaries. This seemingly never-ending natural resource became a source of contention among the original inhabitants of the Americas as well as among every group of newcomers--from the Spanish and the French to the English and the Dutch. Moreover, economic circumstances in faraway places like Europe and China drove the demand for fur, creating further geopolitical and economic complexities. Dolin brings all the data points together to transform the familiar story of fur into a globe-spanning epic.
Norton. 442 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 9780393067101

Barnes and Noble Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Dolin brilliantly argues that the trade in animal skins turned colonial America into a tumultuous frontier where global powers battled for control. ... For all of fur’s contentious position in American culture today, Dolin has skillfully illuminated its centrality in our nation’s ever-surprising history." Chuck Leddy

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"A wealth of information about the American fur trade exists, but it has never been properly condensed for mass consumption, until now. Eric Jay Dolin--whose previous book, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, was a deft blend of history, business and zoology--has produced a superb one-volume examination of an era when American ingenuity and its competitive spirit began to flourish." Michael Taube

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While Dolin reveals little that is new in this popular history, his ambition to tell the whole story of the American fur trade brings a depth of understanding to the economic driver the fur trade was that few other authors put forth. ... Fur, Fortune, and Empire illustrates how the business was a vital factor in the development of the Americas from the start." Peter Sleeth

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Dolin examines virtually every follicle of this history. Dutch, French, British, Spanish, Swedish, Russian and later Americans and Canadians all joined in the fur-for-all. ... Meanwhile, decimated animal populations have at least partly rebounded in some areas, and Dolin concludes this interesting, well-researched book by relating how New Yorkers were recently amazed at the first sighting of a beaver in their city in 200 years." Steve Raymond

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"Dolin’s book reads like a lively textbook for a survey course aimed at college freshman. It provides a comprehensive, well-researched, and chronological account of its subject matter without breaking new ground or advancing provocative or revisionist theories. Dolin is dispassionate throughout, which is disappointing in these juiced-up, polarized times." David Holahan

Critical Summary

In telling the story of fur, Dolin needed to come to grips not just with the histories of several empires in the Americas but with the fields of biology, technology, economics, and, of course, fashion as well. Reviewers who enjoyed a comprehensive view and who appreciated the need for such a history tended to give Dolin considerable credit for this feat. But other critics wrote that telling so many stories over several centuries sometimes gave Fur, Fortune, and Empire the feel of a textbook--an interesting one, to be sure, but still a work that sometimes bogs down. This is one for history buffs only.

SCIENCE