Fordlandia, by Greg Grandin

A rubber plantation established in the Brazilian rainforest in 1927, ostensibly to provide raw materials for the Ford Motor Company's automobiles, Fordlandia was also a vast, quixotic experiment in social engineering: a model city intended to bring order and civilisation to the Amazon through "paternalistic manipulation".

Perhaps inevitably, the enterprise was a failure. The rubber trees died and Henry Ford's Puritan values failed to take root. The town was abandoned in 1945, the jungle reclaiming the tended vegetable gardens and shingled houses.

It is a story rich with dramatic potential, and the historian Greg Grandin tells it with the skill and verve of a great novelist. Ford emerges as the flawed protagonist: like Conrad's Lord Jim, the industrialist imagined himself as the benevolent philosopher-king of a tropical realm, convinced that he "could make the world conform to his will", only to find events spiralling beyond his control.

This is history of the most compelling and eminently readable kind.

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