[Book Review] Panama and Beyond by Debby Detering

Panama and Beyond: Letters from Cuba, Panama, and by steamship to and from Panama 1907–1914
Debby Detering
Self-published (2019)/ 259 pp.
To purchase the book, click here.

Letters and journal entries are useful sources which reveal the everyday lived experience of people who lived in the past. But a detailed chronicle of the construction of the Panama Canal and the going-ons of a ship does feel repetitive to the lay reader after a while.

In Panama and Beyond, Detering circumvents this by guiding the reader through assiduous research. Drawing from a variety of sources, she furnishes us with pictures and quotes to bring the minutiae in letters and journals to life.

Through a passage of eight years (1907-1914), we embark on a vicarious voyage through the letters and journals of Detering’s relatives. From a family gathering in Cuba; to the author’s grandfather, William Hobby, working on the Culebra Cut, the central section of the Panama Canal; and the return trip from Panama to San Francisco through Hobby’s journals.

Nothing seems to escape the letter-writers as they detail anything that catches their fancy; working conditions, foods, styles of dress etc. Paired with Detering’s research, we learn of interesting factoids such as Dr Gorgas’ hypothesis of fever being transmitted by mosquitoes and his work in preventing transmissions in Panama; Satsuma buttons; and a newsletter which details the amount of excavation done in the canal, thereby sparking a healthy competition amongst the workers.

Such details not only entertain the general reader with a healthy curiosity, but they also provide excellent starting points for research into a history of engineering, trade, labour, transportation, travel, and many more.

Additionally, the pairing of source material and research does not feel like a bombardment, but more of a knowledgeable aunt guiding you through the unveiling of her family album. This makes it easy to dip in and out of the book.

More importantly, despite a clear effort in the curation to produce a coherent timeline, Detering does not attempt to sanitise history despite it concerning her relatives. The sheer racist disdain of the other workers by Charles Potter may be hard to read, but it something we all have to come to terms with.

Ultimately, Panama and Beyond is an insightful read about an important slice of American history and expansion, while providing us with details about the sights and sounds of other countries in the South America in the early 1900s.


This review is made possible by Reedsy Discovery.