Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, by Kate Summerscale

Penguin, 2016
378 pp


As someone who loves all crimes Victorian, I'd been looking forward to reading this book ever since I discovered it was going to be published.  Kate Summerscale is the author The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, one of my favorite historical true crime studies; that book held me pretty much spellbound right through to the end. She is one hell of a researcher for sure -- her books are steeped in cultural, social, economic and historical context so that the reader has a very good feel for  the bigger picture stemming outward from the crime in question, so that the end result is, as one blurber wrote about her Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace, the author "shed(s) light on Victorian morality and sensibilities."  Her research is nothing but meticulous, and both as a reader and as someone who enjoys history, I can tell she puts her heart and her soul into her work.  And it pays off. 

In The Wicked Boy, Ms. Summerscale takes on the story of Robert Coombes, who in July 1895 at the young age of thirteen, killed his mother, closed the bedroom door where the crime was committed, and then along with his younger brother Nattie, calmly went to a cricket match. The crime went undetected for a while, even when the brothers brought an older man, John Fox,  into the house to stay with them, and whenever anyone would ask about mom, they were told that she was out of town. But some ten days later, the milkman noticed a terrible smell, and passed the word around to the neighbors, who turned around and let the boys' aunt know.  When she arrives, she demands to speak with her sister-in-law, but Robert continues with the lie that she's out of the house.  Auntie, though, demands to see their mother, and when the bedroom door was finally opened, she was met with "the smell of rotting flesh" and the "form of a woman, lying on the bed, the face covered by a sheet and a pillow."  When faced with what he'd done,  Robert admits that it was he who had killed his mother because Nattie had "got a hiding for stealing some food, and Ma was going to give me one."

 In examining the whys in the case, Summerscale turns to different factors that may have played a role in the reason Coombes did what he did. Maybe he was heavily influenced by the stories in the penny dreadfuls he read -- after all, as she notes, they had been occasionally linked by inquest juries to suicide and murder; the press had noted that they were "the poison which is threatening to destroy the manhood of democracy," and for some reason they were viewed as representative of a threat from the "lower orders." Or perhaps it was that Robert was afraid of his mother's temper and her threats of violence,  or maybe even as Summerscale notes the illustration above suggests, some sort of hidden psycho-sexual  "irresistible impulse."  It's an intriguing crime that I'd never heard of, and the whys may never be known.  After the author examines the particulars of the case, the law, the trial, etc., she then goes on to argue that perhaps history shouldn't judge Robert Coombes for what he did in July 1895, since he went on to lead an exemplary life.

As I said, it's very obvious that she's researched her story and her people meticulously. I couldn't get enough of the crime itself, trying to figure out why Robert would have done what he did and what Nattie's involvement may have actually been.  However, there comes a time when any researcher worth her or his salt has to know what to keep and what to let go when reporting her findings, and that's one of my issues with this book. There is so much detail that some of it easily could have been left out with no detriment to either the study of the crime at hand or the people involved.  For example, from pp 226 through 233 we get a long section on another Broadmoor inmate who played cricket at Broadmoor while Robert was there. Then, through the end of that chapter on 239, more about another young inmate. Interesting, yes, but germane to Coombes' story? I get that she's discussing other adolescents who ended up there, but still, thirteen pages?  This tends to happen throughout this book and it's frustrating when all I wanted to do was to move along and get on with Coombes' story.   However, despite my misgivings about the overabundance of what I see as unnecessary details woven into this narrative, I would certainly recommend the book to anyone who has an interest in Victorian true crime.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

just brilliant: Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, by Talitha L. LeFlouria

University of North Carolina Press, 2015
257 pp


Just a heads-up: my perspective here is not at all academic. I haven't looked, but I'm sure this book has a number of scholarly reviews that will provide more of an in-depth, academic treatment.

I'm coming from the point of view of someone working to fill in gaps in my own knowledge of the history of African-Americans and of women in this country.  When I read that a major part of the author's purpose in this book was to "give voice to a group of women who had theirs taken away," I knew had to read it. Why?  As the author stated in 2015 in an interview where I first heard about this book, 
"We have to honor black women's voices from below and to honor their struggles, and their working bodies in particular helped to build modern America. We have to look at these prisoners who were bound, unwaged, abused and terrorized, and who also helped shape political struggles to resist the abuses, the trauma and the terror, and the violence that was visited upon them. So although their resistance may have been less organized, less structured and less formal, it was still very potent and worthy of consideration."
The relevance of this story to our own time cannot be understated -- as the author notes at the end of this book,
"Today black women are still afflicted by the social, political and economic vices that predisposed them to arrest, conviction and incarceration in the past...In order to better understand the modern carceral state and the complex relationship black women have with it, we must confront the past and listen even when it seems to be silent."
There are at least four main issues that permeate this book (and which continue to resonate over the course of more than a century later): gender, race, crime, and punishment.   In this study, the author also looks at African-American women in the "carceral state" and how as bound women they were affected by the ongoing assertion of white supremacy and control in the post-emancipation "New South." This book reveals, analyzes and most thoroughly discusses those contemporary "social, political and economic" factors while allowing some of the women's voices to be heard after more than a century of silence. As the author notes, her work  is "chiefly invested in rebuilding the historical viewpoint of the unwaged, bound black female worker."

The story of these unheard women is revealed, in large part, through an in-depth, wide-ranging study of a number of primary sources that include such records as "Corporal Punishment Registers Monthly Reports (Whipping Reports), 1884-89" from the Georgia Department of Corrections, medical reports of prison doctors, court dockets, contemporary newspapers, and most importantly, the personal accounts of women who became part of the convict labor system.  As the author tells us, black convict women were "Georgia's (and the South's) most inconspicuous workforce," but they were also a "fundamental asset  in the development of Georgia's postbellum industries," including railroads,  brick factories, mining, and other industries that were instrumental in establishing  "New South modernity" after the civil war.  However, they had to endure some horrific, demoralizing, and downright dehumanizing conditions during their incarceration.

There is so much to this book that I can't possibly cover the complexities within in any amount of depth, but the chapter headings will offer a clue as to what's here:

  1. The Gendered Anatomy of "Negro Crime " 
  2. Black Women and Convict Leasing in the "Empire State" of the New South
  3. "The Hand that Rocks The Cradle Cuts Cordwood: Prison Camps for Women
  4. Sustaining the "Weak and Feeble: Women Workers and the Georgia State Prison Farm
  5. Broken, Ruined and Wrecked: Women on the Chain Gang.

Don't expect a history for the masses sort of thing here.  Chained in Silence is an academic monograph and a solid work of history in which the author offers her arguments, supports them with personal accounts or other data, and then provides in-depth analysis to make her case.   In some areas her work is hampered by lack of data, but she makes this very clear in the telling.  She also realizes that there is much more work to be done and offers topics for future researchers.  At the same time, she makes this book very approachable for readers like myself who believe that the best history is told from the perspective of those whose voices never quite seem to make it into the historical record. This book, for lack of a better way to say it, is just brilliant and deserves widespread attention.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Andrés Reséndez: READ THIS BOOK!!

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
431 pp


"If we were to add up all the Indian slaves taken in the New World from the time of Columbus to the end of the nineteenth century, the figure would run somewhere between 2.5 million and 5 million slaves."(5)

Thinking about the subject of slavery in America will, for most people, conjure up horrific images of Africans taken from homeland and families, packed in confined spaces on ships and enduring unimaginable conditions and treatment once they reach their destination. It is a tragic and vile chapter in our history,  and a reminder of the horrors that humans can inflict on other humans in the name of economic power and gain. But, as the author of this book reveals, Africans were not the only victims of the slave trade in America  -- "the other slavery" involved indigenous people. This "other slavery" didn't replace African slavery; on the contrary, it was, as the author notes, "there all along."

This book is not only eye opening, but eye popping as well.  Not only does it offer us a glimpse at this most horrific, long-lasting chapter in history that most people, including myself, knew little about, but in tying it all together the author briefly calls our attention to why this study has potential  relevance in our modern world. For one thing, while slavery is prohibited "practically everywhere in the world,"  today there are "multiple practices of human bondage and trafficking that have some features in common, as well as others that are unique to each market and region of the world."  And, as he notes and in my opinion proves beyond a doubt, there are major similarities between the "unique features of Indian enslavement" and  the various  "forms of bondage practiced today."

 Beginning with  "The Caribbean Debacle," in which
"By the 1550s, a mere sixty years, or two generations, after contact, the Natives so memorably described by Columbus as 'affectionate and without malice' and having 'very straight legs and no bellies' had ceased to exist as a people, and many Caribbean islands became eerie uninhabited paradises." 
the author reveals that what little what we've actually learned about the history of this time doesn't necessarily agree with the reality.   For example, we are all told in our school years that the decimation of  indigenous peoples in this area came about through epidemics that overcame an "immunologically defenseless population." However,  by examining written records of the time, the author carefully makes the case for a combination of "slavery, overwork, and famine" between 1492 and 1550 as the major causes of death, rather than  "smallpox, influenza and malaria" that have been blamed. Of these "human factors," as he goes on to examine in some depth, he finds that "slavery has emerged as a major killer."

From the Caribbean, the rest of the book moves through parts of Central America and on  into North America to reveal that while slavery had already existed between tribes in these areas prior to European contact, it was the arrival of the Europeans that caused a major transformation in the practice itself.  As they spread throughout these areas, "the other slavery" was "never a single institution," but became a "set of kaleidoscopic practices suited to different markets and regions."  As the dustjacket blurb notes, "what started as a European business passed into the hands of indigenous operators and spread like wildfire across vast tracts of the American Southwest."   Human trafficking  moved people outside of their homelands into different places where they were expected to adapt, sometimes under the harshest conditions.    Slavery was  illegal, but the Spanish laws prohibiting Indian slavery , for example, could be gotten around under the banner of  religious justifications or by justifying the need for more labor for resources. Furthermore, they were made by people far removed from the realities of the situation and rarely enforced with any particular kind of vigor.     Even in North America, as he notes, neither the Thirteenth Amendment which clearly states that
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude...shall exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction"
nor the Peonage Act (1867) offered any sort of protection against "the other slavery."  One, there were always justifications for getting around any law if enough money was involved,  and two, labor coercion simply continued in a huge variety of other forms. In fact, as he says, it is this "variability of practices, supremely adapted to each social and legal context and region" that is one of "the defining characteristics" of the other slavery.

There is so much more to this book and it goes into way more depth  that I won't get to here, most especially  in understanding how the transformation of Indian slavery had a huge impact on and helps to explain "the shared history of Mexico and the United States,"  offering for one thing a new slant to historical events of which we are already aware, and making for a serious point to consider in light of today's political climate.   It is not a pretty story, but it is one that definitely needs to be heard.  Highly, highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A veritable tryptich and a double mystery: She Said, She Said, He Said

Floreana Island, Galapagos (from destination360.com

read in April 2016

One early April night  I was going through one of my periodic bouts of insomnia,  tossing and turning and turning and tossing until I'd had enough. I decided to go downstairs to watch something on TV, figuring I'd bore myself back to sleep watching C-span or something. All that was on were infomercials and some really bad movies, and since by this time I was wide awake,  I moved over to Netflix and started skimming through documentaries (my favorite part of tv), and that's when I stumbled on one called "Satan Came to Eden."  It was based on one of the strangest stories I'd never heard, and so I wanted to know more. The result: a purchase of a veritable tryptich of books, two separate memoirs written by two women who'd been present at the time and an account by a writer in the 1980s who had "set out to follow the clues and solve the mystery."   The action took place back in the 1930s, when a strange woman who called herself the Baroness made her way to this lovely island, and after antagonizing everyone there, mysteriously disappeared off of the face of the earth along with her lover, never to be heard from again.

Starting with the book for which the documentary was named, Satan Came to Eden was written by Dore Strauch, who along with her lover and mentor Dr. Friedrich Ritter, decided to chuck life in German civilization and attempt to live in complete harmony with nature, hoping  to "fight their way to inner freedom."  Ritter, whose philosophy "moved between two poles, with Nietzsche at the one end and the other Laotse," kept a little black book in which he recorded the "remotest archipelagos and single islands."  Ultimately Ritter chose the small island of Floreana (aka Charles Island) in the Galapagos, based on reading William Beebe's 1924 book Galapagos: World's End.  (By the way, I get absolutely nada if anyone clicks through to Amazon so feel free.)  By the end of June, 1929, Ritter had given up his practice, the two of them had said their last farewells, and made their way to Floreana where they set about the business of living.  While Dore's book has a LOT of information about the Baroness, her entourage and her disappearance, much of Satan Came to Eden involves, of course, the hardships they went through in getting started, one of which was the arrival of a second German family on the island.  The new guys, the  Wittmers,  had read some of the newspaper accounts which had filtered back to Germany about the modern Robinson Crusoes, and in need of a healthy environment to raise their young but ill son, had also decided to make Floreana their home.  Margret Wittmer's story  is documented in book two, Floreana: A Woman's Pilgrimage to the Galapagos, which also gives a firsthand view of adjusting to life on a "wild, untamed 

desert island in the heart of the Galapagos archipelago."  The Wittmers arrived in 1932; at the time, Margret was five months pregnant.  Obviously, the story of the Wittmers adjustment to life there is different than that of Dr. Ritter and Dore Strauch, but they overlap with the arrival of another person and her entourage, the Baroness Wagner de Bosquet.  By all accounts, the Baroness (self-styled, of course) was a bizarre woman, coming in tow with her two lovers, Phillippson and Lorenz,  and a hired hand who couldn't wait until his contract was up to get away from her.   The Wittmers and the Ritter/Strauch party got only an inkling of what they would be in for once the Baroness arrived; over time she would proclaim herself the owner of the island, set up a hotel, and involve the other islanders into her sordid affairs including a near-deadly rivalry between the two men who loved her.  The Baroness certainly made life on Floreana difficult for her neighbors -- stealing supplies destined for the others and charging them exorbitant rates to get them back, prowling around, spying, and trying to cause tension between the Wittmers and the Ritter/Strauches.   After some time of having to put up with this whacked-out, crazy woman (who would sometimes meet island guests in her panties) and the strange goings on between her two men, Margret hears the Baroness announce that she'll be leaving Floreana to go to the South Seas, and that was pretty much the last time anyone ever saw her.  She disappeared with Phillippson, leaving a very sick Lorenz behind, but afterwards, she was never heard from again. That was 1934; no one has ever found any traces, including bodies. 

These two women's accounts offer varying takes on what may have happened to the Baroness and Phillippson.  Wittmer notes that the Baroness must have kept with her plan to go off to the South Seas via a visiting yacht;  Dore Strauch, who got the dates of the disappearance completely wrong, was adamant that murder had been done, and offered some clues (screams in the night, gunshots, etc.,) to bolster her claim along with some accusations.  But for me, the most interesting story in these books centers around the death of Friedrich Ritter -- was his death truly an accident, or was there more to it? 

In 1983, John Traherne offered his ideas in his The Galapagos Affair, in which he not only looks at the memoirs of the two women but at outside sources as well. He goes over the story, putting all of the players in place as these strange events occur, leading up to the disappearance of the Baroness and Phillippson; he then posits his opinion as to what may have happened.  Moreover, he examines the conflicting "she said she said" accounts of Ritter's death and comes up with various scenarios and then an entirely plausible solution, which actually accords with what I thought after I'd read the two women's accounts.  I won't say what that was, but I will say that of those two books, one of them is entirely suspicious, since the writer contradicts herself more than just once. It's also very obvious that she has something to prove, but I won't say any more.  I love playing armchair detective, and these books offered a great opportunity to do so. 

If nothing else, check out the documentary -- the bizareness of the whole thing, especially in the case of the Baroness,  leaps out at you while you're watching, and in my case, I couldn't turn away.  I was so fascinated with it all that until my books arrived, I read every single thing I could find on these cases -- that's how deeply these mysteries got under my skin.  The books (all three) and the documentary I recommend for people into historical true crime; if you want to skip the two memoirs and go right to Treherne's book, he does a great job in bringing forth material from both accounts, summarizing them, adding in other, outside accounts,  and then offering his own viewpoint.   I'm left wondering though just  how many of these odd, unsolved mysteries there are that may be worth reading about which,  as was the case with this story, I had no clue even existed.  Now my appetite is whetted -- I'll be looking for them.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler's U-Boats, by William Geroux

Viking, 2016
400 pp

advance reader copy, my thanks to the publisher!

If you'll pardon the expression, WWII history involving U-boats and battles at sea just isn't in my wheelhouse, but this book is a bit different. First of all, it focuses on the Merchant Marine and its involvement in the war, which I knew nothing about and second, the people highlighted in this book are rather unique  -- . they're all from one small, isolated county in Virginia on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.  It was a place where, as one man who grew up there noted, "You farmed, you fished the Bay, or you went to sea. Those were your only options."  Mathews men had been on the oceans since colonial times, and were sought out by a number of shipping companies for their seagoing prowess. This small, remote county was also a place where, during World War II, pretty much every family could claim a personal connection to the U-boats that prowled the seas.  In The Mathews Men, Mr. Geroux focuses largely on one single, seafaring family, the Hodges,  of which  seven sons spent much of the war trying to avoid becoming casualties of the U-boats. They  were all there on the high seas during World War II doing their best to keep the war effort going, sometimes at great personal cost. 

I'm going to be very honest here. While I love history, I'm not a huge fan of stories about actual battles and military engagements, and there is quite a lot of that sort of thing in this book. However, life at sea isn't everything that's covered here: the author goes into Mathews County history, into what life was like for those living there before the war, and then what went on with those left behind in Mathews County and how they coped while their  men were serving during the war.  One of the most interesting ongoing stories in this book is that of Henny Hodges, who kept the home fires burning while tending the 60-acre family farm.  Her husband, Captain Jesse, was at sea for most of their life together; Henny was a strong woman who managed "forty acres of crops, a barn full of horses and cows, a hog pen and smokehouse, a chicken house and two docks."  She had raised her own children (all 14 of them) and "several" of her grandchildren (27), pretty much on her own.  The author revisits Henny and other women in Mathews County periodically while telling of the men's exploits at sea, and he is also able to vividly describe the U-boat operations from the points of view of the captains using valuable firsthand accounts.   There is a LOT of interesting stuff here: the U-boats approaching the east coast of the US with very little resistance; the lack of military support for the Merchant Marine that in some cases resulted in unnecessary deaths, and the fact that although the men of the Merchant Marine were engaged in the war effort, they had no status or benefits as veterans once the war was over. 

Since I have an advanced reader copy, I'm not sure if there are photos in the finished product, but if there are not, the lack of photos is a huge drawback. There are excellent maps provided,  but since I got so invested in the lives of these people, I would have also loved to have been able to connect names with faces.  However, even if, like myself, a reader is not all about battles at sea, there is so much more to this book than simply U-boats vs. ships, certainly enough to keep pages turning.  I'd definitely recommend it to maritime history buffs, or to those who are interested in World War II, but I'd also say it's of great interest to anyone interested in Virginia's history or the history of what was happening on the home front.  

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Discovering the North-West Passage: The Four-Year Arctic Odyssey of HMS Investigator and the McClure Expedition, by Glenn M. Stein

McFarland, 2015
376 pp

paperback - my copy from the publisher, thanks!!

--also, my thanks to the people  or algorithms at  LibraryThing and the early reviewers' program for the opportunity to read this book.

April, 1853.  While their ship is imprisoned in the Arctic ice at Mercy Bay, four men from HMS Investigator are hard at work "hacking out a final resting place" for a "departed shipmate."  The captain of this vessel, Robert John Le Mesurier McClure, was speaking with the first lieutenant when suddenly they saw someone coming toward them from the entrance of the bay.  The arrival of the newcomer saved the lives of McClure and his crew after what was indeed a hellish expedition that had started in 1850.

McClure, along with Collinson,  commander of a second ship, HMS Enterprise, had been tasked with searching for any signs of the missing Franklin expedition, which had left England in 1845.  It wasn't the first such expedition, but by the time McClure and Collinson were heading toward the Arctic, no one had yet discovered any clues as to the fate of the crews of the Erebus and the Terror.  The Investigator and the Enterprise were supposed to have taken up the search and head into the ice together, since the Admiralty had decided that two ships would be safer than one alone, but McClure, a man driven by ambition,  had other ideas, and decided to risk going alone.  After all, finding the Northwest Passage was "the holy grail" of the time, and he saw an opportunity for future glory, fame and of course, the hefty reward that was being offered for doing so.  Discovering the North-West Passage details the story of the outcome of McClure's ambition, which would ultimately land him in the same fate as the Franklin expedition by 1853, but thankfully for the crew, with a much better outcome.   Obviously, there's so much more to this story than I'm describing here, including a horrendous plan McClure was planning to set into motion just before help arrived that really reveals just how far gone in his egomania he'd become,  but I'll leave it for others to discover.

It is a fascinating story, to be sure.  A look at the bibliography alone reveals close to 15 double-columned pages of source material, much of it primary sources that includes the journals of some of the crew. He also adds an entire appendix about these first-hand accounts.  The idea a reader may walk away with is that McClure, who was a bit of an egomaniac, had ordered all of the crew who had kept an ongoing journal to turn their diaries over to him once rescue arrived, but these seem to have been destroyed when he realized that Investigator was going to be left behind in the ice. The surgeon, Armstrong, was the only one whose journal survived intact, and it is through his eyes that we get a good feel for what was really going on during the expedition, often countering the more rosy, untrue accounts given by McClure.   However, at the same time, the wealth of documentation used by the author in presenting his absolutely riveting account does tend to become the book's own worst enemy -- there is so much minutiae to sift through and a lot of what I would consider unnecessary detail that tends to bog down an otherwise incredibly interesting and eye-opening account of another chapter in the history of polar exploration.

 The author is an outstanding researcher and I can understand why he would want to include a great number of his more extraneous findings here, but when it comes right down to it, there has to be a time when a writer needs to hold back or at least let an editor help him out and this is one of those.  Conversely, I was so wrapped up in the narrative that I quickly figured out what was important and what would add to my own knowledge, and what I could easily skim without losing the main flow.  This is an account that by the time I'd finished reading, chilled me to the bone knowing what could have easily happened to these poor men who had already suffered enough had it not been for the arrival of salvation on that April day in 1853.  Definitely recommended.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, by Bryan Burrough

Penguin, 2015
585 pp


In Days of Rage, Bryan Burrough sets out to uncover the "untold story of the underground era" in America, a time frame that lasted from 1970 through 1985.  It is a very detailed, chronological look at the rise and fall of several underground radical revolutionary groups that existed during this time period, exploring  motivations behind their actions, as well as attempts by law enforcement (primarily the FBI, but also police departments across the country) to put an end to the violence. Combining personal interviews, written accounts and other material on both sides of the fence, he has put together what he calls a  "straightforward narrative history of the period." More on that later.

Burrough starts at the end of 1968 and the beginning of 1969 with Sam Melville, who, along with his friends, "began planning some kind of bombing campaign." Melville was angry -- Nixon had just been elected, promising reprisals against student protestors, and not much time had gone by since August and the horrific events at the Democratic National Convention. Some people, like Sam, had decided that they weren't going to take it any more -- that it was time to fight back -- and started "talking about a genuine revolution, about guns, about bombs, about guerrilla warfare."  Telling his wife that "the revolution ain't tomorrow. It's now. You dig?" Melville began planning a bombing campaign, along with several like-minded friends. The first target, an office of United Fruit,  turned out to be no longer occupied, but the next bomb hit its mark -- the Marine Midland Bank on Wall Street. Further campaigns struck at "centers of American corporate power."   As the author notes, Melville was a pioneer of sorts, the
 "first to take antigovernment violence to new level, building large bombs and using them to attack symbols of American power."
His tactics would become "the essential blueprint for almost every radical organization of the next decade," although later others would also add in bank robberies, kidnapping and as Burrough puts it in his own way, outright murder. As Burrough notes in an interview on NPR, the people in these groups all read the same philosophers, and shared the same philosophies -- in the book he cites works by Che, Mao, Marighella's Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, Debray's Revolution in the Revolution? as only a few examples.

The book begins in earnest at this point, and starts with Weatherman (which will ultimately become Weather Underground).  In 1969, the group had tried to organize a protest in Chicago which they named "Days of Rage," but when the expected crowd failed to turn up, Burrough says, they became impatient to get the revolution going and began working on a wider campaign of violence.   In the process of preparing a bomb they'd planned to use at a dance at Ft. Dix, three people in an East Village townhouse were killed; two more, Cathy Wilkerson and Kathy Boudin, became fugitives and went underground.  According to what is said here, what the group learned from this experience was that they needed to make safer bombs and that symbols of American power should be their targets rather than people. While I won't go into detail here, Weatherman takes up most of the story in this book, and Burrough follows the group's story as it splintered, went through a number of purges and tried to stay steps ahead of the FBI for years.

Other groups under study in this book are the Black Liberation Army (BLA), a violent offshoot of the Black Panthers whose members were in touch with Eldridge Cleaver who was now in Algeria; the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) of Patty Hearst kidnap fame; FALN, a Puerto Rican group whose members advocated for Puerto Rican independence through deadly bombings, one of which killed several people at the Fraunces Tavern in New York City; the New World Liberation Front, at work in California's Bay Area; The Family, who targeted armored cars and cops, and the United Freedom Front, the creation of Ray Levasseur, who came out of prison with a dream of becoming the leader of his own "underground army."

He also examines the radicalization of some of the people who came out of America's prisons and found their way to these groups; when revolutionaries were sent to prison, demands for release often supplied motives for bombing campaigns.  Another segment of people involved here are the attorneys behind the scenes and in court who helped out with money, communiques, and allegedly smuggling contraband into the prisons. The book's subtitle also mentions the FBI, and they are here, especially the infamous Squad 47 out of New York, some of whom were later indicted as the truth behind their illegal "black bag jobs" became known.

Aside from laying out what he calls  a "straightforward narrative history of the period," one of the biggest goals of this book, it seems to me, is in Burrough's attempt to break down the "myth, pure and simple," that this violence was aimed more at specific symbols rather than people.  He notes at the beginning of the book that
"It is ultimately a tragic tale, defined by one unavoidable irony: that so many idealistic young Americans, passionately committed to creating a better world for themselves and those less fortunate, believed they had to kill people to do it."
At the same time, he also wants to  "explain to people today why all this didn't seem as insane then as it does now."

 In speaking about his work in the above-mentioned interview, the author said  that some of the  "young people who went underground" in the 1970s were declaring a "kind of war against America" believing that "a revolution was imminent and that violence would speed the change as it had in China, in North Vietnam, and in Cuba." He also notes that while people in the underground truly believed at the time that their action "shows the lengths to which committed left-wing people" would go to "oppose power in America -- corrupt power as personified by the Nixon administration in the Vietnam War," there are still others, like the son of a victim of an FALN bombing in a New York City bombing who will never see it that way, who will always think of these people as "Murderers first, revolutionaries second" and "Flat-out terrorists."

As the author notes in his epilogue, people can try to understand the "underground struggle as a well-meaning if misguided attempt to right America's wrongs,"  but there are also
"other observers, however, who argue persuasively that the crimes the underground committed overwhelm any altruistic motivations." 
 There's much, much, much more in this highly-complex book that is just impossible to encapsulate here.

 Reader reaction is mixed -- mainly favorable, but there is some negativity surrounding this book, especially coming from people who were there and active in the protest movements of the late 1960s, early 1970s.  There is a wealth of information here, although I must say that in some ways, that becomes one of the book's drawbacks. In some cases, I found that the author's inclusion of so much detail about the less-political side of these radical organizations  (e.g. sex, drugs, and a repeated litany of violent acts and subsequent hunts by law enforcement) sort of threw the politics to one side, which to me is less history than journalism, so that there are a number of times when it felt like his history verged toward more of a true-crime account. To me, a good historical  narrative is set well within the larger context, and  here, a lot seems to have been left out in terms of what was going on in America politically and socially, and maybe more to the point, what was going on with the nonviolent left at the same time. I'm also sort of taken aback by the lack of references here -- to cover over 500 pages, there is a only a very small amount of footnotes to turn to.  I will also note that despite the fact that he sees his work as a straightforward history of the period,  Burrough does let his own judgments become pretty clear throughout the book, but how this is so I will leave to the reader to discover.

 On the other hand,  much of this story is completely new material for me, and since I wasn't anywhere close to being old enough to be involved at the time, I had no expectations political or otherwise going into this account other than how much I could possibly learn about this relatively unknown (to me) story. There were parts I found absolutely fascinating -- I had no clue that some of these groups even existed, so in terms of revisiting the "forgotten age of revolutionary violence," it was a highly-informative book and the author deserves a large amount of credit for his hard work in putting it together.  It is most definitely a work that anyone interested ought to read, and keeping in mind my issues with this book, it's one I'd recommend.

a few professional reviews:

Jordan Michael Smith, The Boston Globe
Maurice Isserman, The New York Times
Rick Perlstein, The Nation