Uncommon Carriers [NOOK Book]

Overview


What John McPhee's books all have in common is that they are about real people in real places. Here, at his adventurous best, he is out and about with people who work in freight transportation.
Over the past eight years, John McPhee has spent considerable time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. Uncommon Carriers is his sketchbook of them and of his journeys with them. He rides from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a ...
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Uncommon Carriers

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Overview


What John McPhee's books all have in common is that they are about real people in real places. Here, at his adventurous best, he is out and about with people who work in freight transportation.
Over the past eight years, John McPhee has spent considerable time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. Uncommon Carriers is his sketchbook of them and of his journeys with them. He rides from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a sixty-five-foot,eighteen-wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmats. McPhee attends ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of the French Alps, where, for a tuition of $15,000 a week, skippers of the largest ocean ships refine their capabilities in twenty-foot scale models. He goes up the “tight-assed” Illinois River on a “towboat” pushing a triple string of barges, the overall vessel being “a good deal longer than the Titanic.” And he travels by canoe up the canal-and-lock commercial waterways traveled by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John, in a homemade skiff in 1839.
Uncommon Carriers is classic work by McPhee, in prose distinguished, as always, by its author’s warm humor, keen insight, and rich sense of human character.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A new book by John McPhee is always cause for rejoicing. A writer who gleefully defies classification, McPhee has created one of the most eclectic nonfiction oeuvres around; yet, to judge from his perennial popularity, what interests McPhee interests his readers as well. In this colorful series of personality profiles, he thumbs a ride with the cross-country truckers, international shippers, river towboaters, and coal train engineers who transport freight from place to place. In between assignments for his longtime employer, The New Yorker, McPhee devoted nearly a decade of his free time to researching and writing Uncommon Carriers. Like everything else by this wonderful author, it's an uncommonly good read.
Jason Goodwin
… McPhee is also very good at what he does. He has written about geology in the past, and he deals with this stratum of American civilization in a deceptively neutral tone, as if he were describing tectonic plates: His prose has a tendency to stack up and roll on by like a two-mile boxcar railroad engine passing an impatient four-wheeler at a crossing.
— The Washington Post
Adam Hochschild
We often read about people in glamorous professions — surgeons, actors, musicians, writers — but so seldom about those who do the jobs we all depend on, those who transport raw materials on river barges, or haul the coal that generates electricity. If the human race survives another century or two, many of these jobs will vanish (they're already talking about running trains by remote control), and McPhee's work will provide an invaluable record of how those primitive people back in 2006, however heedless they were of what they were doing to their planet, treasured their bygone crafts.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
McPhee's 28th book (after The Founding Fish) is a grown-up version of every young boy's fantasy life, as the peripatetic writer gets to ride in the passenger seat in an 18-wheel truck, tag along on a barge ride up the Illinois River and climb into the cabin of a Union Pacific coal train that's over a mile long. He even gets to be the one-man crew on a 20-ton scale model of an ocean tanker in a French pond where ship pilots go for advanced training. As always, McPhee's eye for idiosyncratic detail keeps the stories (some of which have appeared in the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly) lively and frequently moves them in interesting directions. One chapter that starts out in a Nova Scotia lobster farm winds up in Louisville, Ky., where McPhee is quickly beguiled by the enormous UPS sorting facility. In a more intimate piece, he takes a canoe and retraces Thoreau's path along New England rivers, noting the modern urban sprawl as well as the wildlife. "There are two places in the world-home and everywhere else," the towboat captain tells McPhee, "and everywhere else is the same." But McPhee always uncovers the little differences that give every place its unique tale. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
McPhee sums up eight years of riding around with people who haul freight in vehicles ranging from 18-wheelers to towboats. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-McPhee charms readers with an insider's look at various forms of freight carriers, including trucks, trains, and ocean tankers. He describes his personal experiences of traveling with a handful of people who transport bulk cargo. A self-proclaimed "four wheeler with a tendency to ignore stop signs," he identifies the exceptional talents and quirky personality of each driver, seaman, and conductor and wonders at the expertise of these unknown mavens. The captain of the SS Stella Lykes can parallel park a 700-foot ship in a 750-foot space without assistance. Pilot Mel Adams maneuvers a fully loaded tugboat four times longer than the river is wide, with as little as 10 feet of clearance where the river turns. Dan Ainsworth, chemical tanker driver, factors the weight of his fuel, the distance between truck stops, and the weight of his load to avoid exceeding the limit at weigh stations. A pleasure to read, each of the seven chapters is an adventure waiting to be taken individually or collectively. Students will learn of the danger, the technology, and the precision required to bring coal to heat peoples' houses, goods to their grocery stores, and imports to their harbors.-Brigeen Radoicich, Fresno County Office of Education, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
McPhee (The Founding Fish, 2002, etc.) rides the rails, sits shotgun in a tanker truck and climbs aboard a river towboat as he investigates the ways in which the staples of modern life travel from one place to another. The seven chapters here, large portions of which have appeared in the New Yorker, for which the author is a staff writer, and the Atlantic Monthly, contain the trademark McPhee touches-unstinting attention to revealing details, a wry sense of humor and a way of rendering prosaic subjects fascinating. He really shines when he finds a character to match his interest in the mechanical, and truck driver Don Ainsworth, a central figure throughout two chapters, plays the perfect foil. As Ainsworth pilots his polished-chrome, 80,000-pounds-when-loaded chemical tanker truck across the country, McPhee reveals the driver's obsession with the Wall Street Journal, his collection of boots made from the skins of exotic animals such as water buffaloes and caimans and the technical skill it takes to steer his leviathan-sized vehicle clear of inattentive drivers and overeager cops ("four-wheelers" and "bears," in the driver's lingo). Elsewhere, the author hitches a ride on a coal train a mile-and-a-half long, attends a school in France where tanker-ship captains practice tricky maneuvers on a pond in scale-sized model ships and rides along as a towboat pushes a thousand-foot-long line of barges up the Illinois River. McPhee portrays the main UPS sorting center in Louisville as an enormous Rube Goldberg contraption in which the workers inside, many of them college students slogging through night shifts to pay tuition, appear tiny in the shadow of the behemoth that roars all around them. Inthe one chapter that drags somewhat-perhaps because the central character is long-deceased-McPhee canoes the Concord and Merrimack Rivers along the route taken by Henry David Thoreau in 1839. Read this colorful journalism and you will never view an 18-wheeler, freight train or UPS truck in quite the same way.
From the Publisher
"To read the studious John McPhee in this sensationalist age, when so many other literary journalists are shrieking from some self-aggrandizing edge, is to be reminded of what the genre should be—artfully reported stories that illuminate who we are."—Robert Braile, The Boston Globe
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429988971
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/16/2006
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 485,593
  • File size: 233 KB

Meet the Author


JOHN McPHEE is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is the author of twenty-seven books, all published by FSG. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Biography

"John McPhee ought to be a bore," The Christian Science Monitor once observed. "With a bore's persistence he seizes a subject, shakes loose a cloud of more detail than we ever imagined we would care to hear on any subject -- yet somehow he makes the whole procedure curiously fascinating."

This is his specialty. A New Yorker writer hired in 1965 by another devil-is-in-the-details disciple, William Shawn, McPhee has taken full advantage of the magazine's commitment to long, unusual pieces and became one of the practitioners of so-called "literary journalism," joining a fraternity occupied by Tom Wolfe, Tracey Kidder, and Joan Didion. He hung on during the Tina Brown days, when the marching orders were for short and topical pieces. And the magazine's current editor, David Remnick, was once a student of McPhee's annual writing seminar at Princeton University.

The temptation is to brand McPhee a nature writer, since he spends so much of his professional life trekking through the outdoors or scribbling notes in the passenger seat of a game warden's pickup truck. But his writing isn't so easily labeled as that. Instead, he has the luxury of writing about whatever strikes his fancy, oftentimes plumbing childhood passions. In fact, his big break as a professional writer combined two of his favorite things: sports and Princeton, his home since birth. In 1965, he finally got published by The New Yorker with a profile on Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley. The piece later became his first book.

He wrote for the television program Robert Montgomery Presents in the late 1950s and was on staff at Time in the ‘50s and ‘60s, frequently pitching pieces to his dream publication,The New Yorker. That particular success eluded him until Shawn picked up the Bradley piece and then spent hours with him editing the piece the night the magazine was going to press. In a 1997 interview with Newsday, McPhee recalled that experience: "I said to him, 'This whole enterprise is going on and you're sitting here talking to me about this comma. How do you do it?' And he said, 'It takes as long as it takes.' That's the greatest answer I ever heard."

The same might be said of McPhee himself. He has written what, for many, is the definitive book on Alaska, Coming into the Country. "With this book,The New York Times said, "McPhee proves to be the most versatile journalist in America." He spent 696 pages on the geological development of North America in Annals of the Former World. He explored man's battle to tame mudslides and lava flows in The Control of Nature. He considered the birch-bark canoe in The Survival of the Bark Canoe. He caused a bit of head-scratching over the topic of his 17th book, La Place de la Concorde Suisse: the Swiss army.

The itinerary, at first blush, might not always be compelling, but in McPhee's hands, the journey is its own reward.

"Mr. McPhee is a writer's writer -- a master craftsman whom many aspirants study," The Wall Street Journal said in 1989. "For one thing, he has an engaging, distinctive voice. It is warm, understated and wry. Within a paragraph or two, he takes us into his company and makes us feel we're on an outing with an old chum. A talky old chum, to be sure, with an occasional tendency to corniness and rambling, but a cherished one nevertheless. We read his books not so much because we're thirsty for information about canoes, but because it's worth tagging along on any literary journey Mr. McPhee feels like taking."

Good To Know

The son of a doctor, McPhee credits his love of the outdoors to the 13 summers he spent at Camp Keewaydin, where his father was the camp physician.

His devotion to the perfect sentence came from a high school English teacher who assigned her students three compositions a week, an assignment that included an outline defending the composition's structure.

Bill Bradley made McPhee his daughter's godfather.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John A. McPhee
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 8, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt


Excerpted from Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee. Copyright © 2006 by John McPhee. Published in June 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
A Fleet of One

The little four-wheelers live on risk. They endanger themselves. They endangered us. If you're in a big truck, they're around you like gnats. They're at their worst in the on-ramps of limited-access highways, not to mention what they do on horse-and-buggy highways. They do the kissing tailgate. They do passing moves over double yellow lines. They make last-second break-ins from stop signs on feeder roads. The way they are operated suggests insufficiency in, among other things, coördination, depth perception, and rhythm. When I went to bad-driver school, the opening lecturer did not imply any such flaws in his students. He was a real bear. He wore blue-and-yellow trousers and a badge. In a voice he fired like a .45, he began by asking us, "How many of you people think you're good drivers?"

We had all been singled out in four-wheelers. My own car had a tendency to ignore stop signs without previously sensing the presence of bears. It lapsed in other ways as well. After I reached twelve points, I was offered admission to the New Jersey Driver Improvement Program, on the following voluntary basis: enroll or lose your license. Among the twenty-five people in the class, two smart-asses stuck up their hands in positive response to the instructor's question. He looked them over, then swept the room. "Well, you must all be good drivers," he said. "If you weren't, you'd be dead."

Then he darkened the room and rolled a film showing cars hitting cars in on-ramps. A, looking left, accelerates. B, looking left, accelerates. B rear-ends A, because A hesitated, and B was still looking to the left. This primal accident, the figure eight of bad driving, was the base of a graphic montage that ended in high-speed collision and hideous death on the road.

These memories of bad-driver school ran through me in eastern Oregon after Don Ainsworth, at the wheel of his sixty-five-foot chemical tanker, gave some air horn to a step van that was coming fast up an on-ramp on a vector primed for a crash. A step van is a walk-in vehicle of the UPS variety, and, like all other four-wheelers, from Jettas to Jaguars, in Ainsworth's perspective is not a truck. FedEx, Wonder Bread, Soprano Sand-and-Gravel--they're not trucks, they're four-wheelers, even if they have six wheels. A true truck has eighteen wheels, or more. From Atlanta and Charlotte to North Powder, Oregon, this was the first time that Ainsworth had so much as tapped his air horn. In the three thousand one hundred and ninety miles I rode with him he used it four times. He gave it a light, muted blast to thank a woman in a four-wheeler who helped us make a turn in urban traffic close to our destination, and he used it twice in the Yakima Valley, flirting with a woman who was wearing a bikini. She passed us on I-82, and must have pulled over somewhere, because she passed us again on I-90. She waved both times the horn erupted. She was riding in a convertible and her top was down.

If the step van had hit us it would only have been inconvenient, the fact notwithstanding that we were hauling hazmats. The step van weighed about ten thousand pounds and we weighed eighty thousand pounds, minus a few ounces. Ainsworth said he could teach a course called On-Ramp 101. "We get many near-misses from folks who can't time their entry. They give you the finger. Women even give you the finger. Can you believe it?"

I could believe it.

"Four-wheelers will pass us and then pull in real fast and put on their brakes for no apparent reason," he said. "Four-wheelers are not aware of the danger of big trucks. They're not aware of the weight, of how long it takes to bring one to a halt, how quickly their life can be snuffed. If you pull any stunts around the big trucks, you're likely to die. I'm not going to die. You are."

We happened to be approaching Deadman Pass. We were crossing the Blue Mountains--on I-84, the Oregon Trail. He said, "Before you know it, we'll be sitting on top of Cabbage. Then we're going to fall down." He had mentioned Cabbage Hill when we were still in the Great Divide Basin. He mentioned it again in Pocatello. After crossing into Oregon and drawing closer, he brought it up twice an hour. "It's the terrific hill we fall down before we come to Pendleton. Pretty treacherous. Switchbacks. Speed restricted by weight. You'll see guys all the time with smoke flying out the brakes or even a flameout at the bottom."

From the Carolina piedmont to Hot Lake, Oregon--across the Appalachians, across the Rockies--he had not put his foot on the brake pedal on any descending grade. In harmony with shrewd gear selection, this feat was made possible by Jake Brakes--a product of Jacobs Vehicle Systems, of Bloomfield, Connecticut. Ainsworth called the device "a retarder, generically--you're turning a diesel engine into an air compressor." On a grade we descended in Tennessee, he said, "If you choose your gear right, and your jake's on maxi, you can go down a hill with no brakes. It saves money. It also lengthens my life." Crossing the summit of the Laramie Range and addressing the western side, he geared down from twelfth to eighth and said, "I won't use one ounce of brake pressure. The jake is on maxi." As big trucks flew past us--dry boxes, reefers--he said, "These guys using brakes with improper gear selection don't own the tractor or the trailer. Using brakes costs money, but why would they care?" Ainsworth owns the tractor and the trailer. As he glided onto the Laramie Plains, he went back up to eighteenth gear: "the going- home gear, the smoke hole; when you got into this gear in the old days, your stacks would blow smoke." On a grade at Hot Lake, however, he tried fifteenth gear, and his foot had to graze the pedal. He seemed annoyed with himself, like a professional golfer who had chosen the wrong club.

And now we were about to "fall down Cabbage." In ten miles, we would drop two thousand feet, six of those miles on a six-per-cent grade. Through basaltic throughcuts we approached the brink. A sign listed speed limits by weight. If you weighed sixty thousand to sixty-five thousand pounds, your limit was thirty-seven miles an hour. In five-thousand-pound increments, speed limits went down to twenty-six and twenty-two. Any vehicle weighing seventy-five thousand pounds or more--e.g., this chemical tanker--was to go eighteen or under. A huge high view with Pendleton in it suddenly opened up. I had asked Ainsworth what makes a tractor-trailer jackknife. He had said, "You're going downhill. The trailer is going faster than the tractor. The trailer takes over. It's almost impossible to bring yourself out of it. Brakes won't do anything for you. It's a product of going too fast for the situation. It can happen on a flat highway, but nine times out of ten it's downhill." The escarpment was so steep that the median widened from a few feet to one and a half miles as the northbound and southbound lanes negotiated independent passage. Ainsworth had chosen eighth gear. He said, "Most truckers would consider this way too conservative. That doesn't mean they're bright." Oregon is the only American state in which trucks are speed-restricted by weight. Feet off both pedals, he started the fall down Cabbage praising the truck for "good jake" and himself for "nice gear selection." My ears thickened and popped.

"Six per cent is serious," he said. "I've seen some sevens or eights. British Columbia drivers talk about tens and twelves."

In two strategic places among the broad looping switchbacks were escape ramps, also known as arrester beds, where a brakeless runaway truck--its driver "mashing the brake pedal and it feels like a marshmallow"--could leave the road and plow up a very steep incline on soft sandy gravel. In winter, the gravel may not be soft. Ainsworth recalled a trucker in Idaho who hit a frozen ramp. His load, bursting through from behind, removed his head. On Cabbage Hill, deep fresh tracks went up an arrester bed several hundred feet. After trucks use a bed, it has to be re- groomed. The state charges grooming fees. Some drivers, brakeless and out of control, stay on the highway and keep on plunging because they don't want to pay the grooming fees. Ainsworth said, "Would you worry about your life or the God- damned grooming fee?"

He was asking the wrong person.

A little later, he said, "Bears will roost at the bottom here."

Fulfilling the prediction, two cars were in ambush in the median where the grade met the plain. Wheat fields filled the plain--endless leagues of wheat, big combines moving through the wheat, houses far out in the wheat concealed within capsules of trees. We passed a couple of dry boxes, both of them Freightliners. Among truckers, they are also known as Freightshakers. "What's the difference between a Jehovah's Witness and the door on a Freightliner?" Ainsworth said.

I said I didn't happen to know.

He said, "You can close a door on a Jehovah's Witness."

We crossed the Columbia River and went over the Horse Heaven Hills into the Yakima Valley, apples and grapes in the Horse Heaven Hills, gators in the valley. To avoid a gator he swung far right, over rumble bars along the shoulder. A gator is a strip of tire, dead on the road, nearly always a piece of a recap. "A gator can rip off your fuel-crossover line, punch in your bumper, bomb out a fender."

The Yakima River was deeply incised and ran in white water past vineyards and fruit trees, among windbreaks of Lombardy poplars. Hops were growing on tall poles and dangling like leis. There was so much beauty in the wide valley it could have been in Italy. Now, through high haze, we first saw the Cascades. On our route so far, no mountain range had been nearly as impressive. We had slithered over the Rockies for the most part through broad spaces. Now we were looking at a big distant barrier, white over charcoal green, its highest visible point the stratovolcano Mt. Adams. We met three new Kenworths coming east--three connected tractors without trailers. One was hauling the other two, both of which had their front wheels up on the back of the tractor ahead of them. They looked like three dogs humping. It was here that we were first passed by the scant bikini in an open Porsche, here that Ainsworth touched his horn for the second time on the journey. I was marginally jealous that he could look down into that bikini while I, on the passenger side, was served rumble bars in the pavement. I had long since asked him what sorts of things he sees in his aerial view of four- wheelers. "People reading books," he answered. "Women putting on makeup. People committing illicit acts. Exhibitionist women like to show you their treasures. A boyfriend is driving. She drops her top."

We skirted Yakima city. " 'Yakima, the Palm Springs of Washington,' " Ainsworth said. "That was written by a guy on laughing gas." He reached for his CB microphone. "Eastbounders, there's a pair of bears waiting for you. They're down there right before the flats." Now ahead of us was a long pull up North Umptanum Ridge. "We're going to give 'em hell," he said. In the left lane, he took the big tanker up to eighty-three, pressing for advantage on the climb. He was in the fast lane to overtake a flatbed hauling fifty thousand pounds of logs. The distance had almost closed; we were practically counting tree rings when the logging truck began to sway. It weaved right and then left and two feet into our lane. Ainsworth said, "Oh, my goodness!"

Ordinarily, I tend to be nervous if I am riding in a car driven by someone else. Like as not, the someone else is Yolanda Whitman, to whom I am married. On trips, we divide the driving time. I make her nervous and she makes me nervous. She was a student in bad-driver school in the same year that I was. While she is at the wheel, I sometimes write letters. I ask the recipients to "excuse my shaky penmanship," and explain that I am "riding in a badly driven car." Coast to coast with Don Ainsworth was as calm an experience as sitting in an armchair watching satellite pictures of the earth. In only three moments did anxiety in any form make a bid for the surface. None had to do with his driving. The first was over the Mississippi River on the bridge to St. Louis--the big arch in the foreground, the water far below--where we seemed to be driving on a high wire with no protection visible beside us, just a void of air and a deep fall to the river. The second was in St. Joseph, where we swung through town on I-229 for a look at the Missouri River, and the narrow roadway, on high stilts, was giddy, a flying causeway convex to the waterfront. Falling down Cabbage Hill, concern for safety hadn't crossed my mind. And now this big logger was bringing up a third and final shot of adrenaline. We got by tightly. The driver was smoking something.

The ridges were dry in that part of Washington--rainfall less than eight inches a year. At elevations under three thousand feet, the ridges were not notably high--certainly not with the Pacific Crest becoming ever more imminent at twelve, thirteen, fourteen thousand feet. We made another long pull, over Manastash Ridge, and drifted down from the brown country into another paradise of irrigation--instant Umbria, just add water. It was a dazzling scene, the green valley of hay, wheat, and poplars; and here the string bikini passed us again, goosed by the air horn and waving. By Cle Elum, we were pulling at the mountains themselves--less than a hundred miles from Seattle and approaching Snoqualmie Pass. Listening to his engine climb, Ainsworth called it "operatic."
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Table of Contents

A fleet of one 3
The ships of Port Revel 43
Tight-assed river 67
Five days on the Concord and Merrimack rivers 115
Out in the sort 153
Coal train 185
A fleet of one - II 237
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 24, 2010

    Reality Read. The book that reality TV wants to be.

    McPhee can make a reader be in the cab of an 18 wheeler, pilot house of a freighter, and river tug. i understand now how i can make a purchase at B&N yesterday, and get the item in three days(1 extra day to Hawai'i)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2009

    Enjoyable and informative

    An enjoyable read. McPhee takes the reader on everyday adventures, showing us the parts of transportation most of us never get to see or experience.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2007

    McPhee does it again

    I have long been a fan of John McPhee, and this book is just as good as you'd expect. This is the next best thing to actually going on an adventure in transportation around the U.S. Required reading for anyone who is interested in how the world works. The writing is, as always, exceptionally good.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2006

    Absolutely loved it!

    This book is a collection of essays that gives great insight to the different modes of transportation and how they work. The people in these essays provide the vital services for our comfortable living and survival and should not be taken for granted. An excellent read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 4, 2006

    A reviewer

    My 4 year old boy loves those big, glossy kids books that spotlight heavy machinery and mammoth modes of transportation. You know the kind: filled with colorful illustrations of dump trucks, 18-wheelers, massive vessels, and locomotives. 'Uncommon Carrier' is McPhee's grownup version of that very same genre. Though, instead of illustrations, the author paints vivid pictures of the conveyances and their operators by way of inquisitive dialogues and the fascinating historical and geological context with which he fills the pages. If you loved 'Billy the Bulldozer' or 'Tommy the Tugboat', then you'll love 'Uncommon Carrier'.

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    Posted April 4, 2011

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    Posted December 20, 2010

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    Posted December 11, 2009

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