Tires, pencil erasers, shoe soles--rubber is so ubiquitous now that everyone takes it for granted. Joe Jackson, in his superb book, "The Thief at the End of the World," takes us back to the last half of the nineteenth century, when rubber--its unique and extraordinary properties just starting to be recognized--was so valuable that nations were prepared to kill or die for it. Jackson tells the story of rubber through the life story of one of the rubber industry's pivotal figures: Henry Wickham, Victorian dreamer, adventurer, and nature artist, whose 1876 theft of 70,000 Hevea Brasiliensis seeds from the Amazon jungle was the genesis of the vast British rubber plantations in Southeast Asia, creating the rubber industry as we know it today. Wickham's theft, unfortunately, also destroyed the wildly profitable Brazilian rubber business, relegating that nation to Third World status from which it is only now emerging. Every page of "The Thief at the End of the World" is saturated with danger and violence, from the prevalence of vampire bats to the hideous, often murderous treatment meted out to rubber tappers, or seringueiros, from the rubber tycoons and their vicious supervisors.
Through it all stands Wickham, a curiously emblematic figure of his age. A combination of idealistic optimist and bold opportunist, Wickham chased his dream of wilderness riches across the Amazon basin, then to Australia and New Guinea, sacrificing everything to that dream including his family and even his loving, loyal wife, Violet. He dreamed of preferment from the British Crown, never dreaming that the man who held the means of preferment--the crabbed, paranoic Joseph Hooker, head of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, near London--misprized Wickham as a whiner and amateur.
"The Thief at the End of the World" is a swift, graceful and thrilling read, as well as an entertaining short course in the history and chemistry of rubber. Its minor characters are worth their own books (such as Lucille Wetherall, mentioned in one paragraph, a Maine woman who, having lost her life savings in a failing Mexican rubber plantation, showed up at the plantation and managed it for years until the Mexican Revolution forced her to flee). Above all, Jackson makes us feel the intoxicating pull of the jungle, and reminds us that harder-headed men than Wickham were susceptible to it; he begins and ends the book with the vivid tale of Fordlandia, Henry Ford's failed attempt to establish a Brazilian rubber empire. Reading "The Thief at the End of the World," Werner Herzog's film "Fitzcarraldo" seems almost tame by comparison. Read it and get hooked.