Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"The Fish That Ate the Whale" by Rich Cohen (2012)

I had never heard of Samuel Zemurray until I picked up this book. As usual, I chose the book by its cover; which is something I was told never to do, and have done since. I’m glad I did. Samuel Zemurray was arguably the banana “King”. From his first encounter with the fruit sometime around 1893 in Selma, Alabama. He was smitten with everything about the fruit; from its shape, color and size; to what was it worth? Samuel, like most immigrants from Eastern Europe at the time, looked at everything in a different light than others. This was, after all, the land of opportunity, and who knew what that first banana held in store for him? As it turned out, it was quite a lot.

Sam Zemurray is the man who popularized the banana, taking it from the small marketplaces of the southern ports of America, all the way into every grocery store in the nation. By the time Mr. Zemurray was through, bananas were celebrated in song, and had become a staple of American cuisine. In this unusual biography of both the man and the banana, author Rich Cohen has given us both an education in the history of the banana in America, as well as a chronicle of the United Fruit Company. This is a story of American capitalism; in a business started by an immigrant; and the effects his success had on those less fortunate than he in the countries from which he derived his that good fortune. In a way, it is the tale of “Raggedy Dick the Shoeshine Boy”; while in another sense it recalls “The Grapes of Wrath.”
From his most humble beginning as a fruit peddler, with one cart of bananas, Mr. Zemurray rose to become a tycoon. Along the way he wrestled with Unions, politicians, foreign governments, and even the CIA, as he built an empire which proved capable of starting wars and influencing politics.

Just as my great grandfather Max Henkin, who hailed from Russia; and is shown here next to a palm tree; Zemurray was fascinated with this healthy and exotic fruit. In his own turn, the author does everything within his power to convey this fascination to the reader.
Tracing Mr. Zemurray’s history and rise to fortune , the author has taken a life which reads like a fairy tale, and strips away a bit of the veneer, getting at the heart of what drove this man who became the “Banana King”. He also manages to let us understand how he stayed at the top of his industry for 40 years.

Also of interest is the bit of education about the industry which the author manages to squeeze into the narrative. He ably explains the difference between a “stem”, which holds one hundred “bunches” of 9 “hands”; which in turn comprise 15 “fingers”, or bananas each.  This called forth the image of stevedores in tropical ports unloading the bananas by hand; shouldering several hundred pounds at a time; with the danger of scorpions and spiders lurking within each bunch unloaded.

This book covers everything from bananas to foreign coups in “banana republics, as well as corporate and labor disputes. This is a real life tale worthy of a good screenplay; and your time will not be misspent in reading Rich Cohen’s entertaining; and educational; biography of a highly unusual individual.

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