Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, by John Preston

Other Press, 2016
340 pp


 Jeremy Thorpe's leadership of the  Liberal Party began in 1967.  Then, after a career which set him on a path to participation in the highest ranks of British politics,  just twelve short years later he was not only out of a job and in disgrace, but standing trial for conspiracy to murder.

In this book, the author traces exactly how this happened, following the story of Norman (Josiffe) Scott, who had claimed that he and Thorpe had had a sexual relationship starting in 1960  when Thorpe forcibly sodomized Scott.   Thorpe, of course, denied the claim, while Scott would tell others exactly how Thorpe had ruined his life. One huge bone of contention between Scott and Thorpe was that Scott had lost his National Insurance Card, which Thorpe had promised to replace and never did.  As Thorpe continued to rise in the political firmament, Scott's mental health and living situation deteriorated to the point where Scott felt compelled to tell his story to anyone who would listen.While nothing was really done about Scott's accusations, over the years Thorpe realized that Scott had documents (letters that could prove Scott's claims)  -- and that his very existence could become problematic vis-a-vis Thorpe's career.  He allegedly hired a hitman to take care of Scott, who proceeded to bungle the job, garnering the attention of the police and the press by killing a dog instead.

I'm not someone who is much into reading about scandals, since I prefer to devote my reading time to other pursuits.  However, while the murder plot is interesting, there's much more in this book worth examining.  First, of course, is how quickly Thorpe's political connections closed ranks to protect their man and their party, down to the prosecutor who obviously failed to "prosecute the case as vigorously as he might have done," with some people commenting that his ambitions led him to not wish "to ruffle too many feathers." Thorpe's friend Peter Bessell continued to cover up for him even after he knew about the murder plot, based on some long-standing, blind loyalty until Thorpe began to throw Bessell under the bus.  Even the judge in the case, if Preston is correct here, had already taken sides as the trial began. Then there are the police -- shutting down any inquiries that may have revealed the truth of things, hiding documents that could wreck Thorpe's career, accusing Scott of "hysterical fantasizing," and putting Scott through the emotional wringer instead of treating his complaints as valid. Second, and probably the most interesting aspect of this book for me, is the fact that until 1967, homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. Even after the law was changed (a brief history given here as well),  gay men continued to be treated contemptuously, and politicians like Thorpe continued to remain reluctant to come out of the closet publicly.  During the trial against Thorpe, for example, Scott's sexuality was put on trial more than once, with one barrister saying that homosexuals were known for their "terrible propensity for malice."

While Preston can tell a story like nobody's business, I was a little disoriented at first with the lack of footnotes. Sources are also nonexistent, except for mentions of people and books in the Acknowledgements section, and even there we're told that "All the exchanges between Jeremy Thorpe and Peter Bessell come from Bessell's book, Cover-Up," Bessell's aide-memoire, so buyer beware.  On the other hand, it is so well told that you'll find yourself becoming immersed from the beginning and unable to stop reading.


Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Mayor of Mogadishu, by Andrew Harding. Read this book.

St. Martin's Press, 2016
304 pp

arc - my thanks to Lauren, and apologies for taking so long to get to the book.

I didn't quite know what to expect as I sat down to read this book, but The Mayor of Mogadishu turned out to be a book I couldn't put down once I'd started it.  Not only is the "mayor," Mohamoud "Tarzan" Nur," a fascinating subject in his own right, but the book also offers its readers a brief look at the history of this country, one that is probably best known by most people outside Somalia from what they've heard on the news.  But broadcast news rarely gives too much time to the people and especially the history behind these stories, hence the importance of books like this one.

Andrew Harding has chosen to focus his story on Mohamoud Nur, aka "Tarzan," a name Nur picked up while living in an orphange beginning in 1960, just as Somalia was about to celebrate its independence from colonial rule.  Nur was born into a poor family of nomads, and as a killer famine loomed, his mother, trying to save her children, had to make the choice of who to send off with relatives.Two brothers were given over to an aunt who took Tarzan and his younger brother to Mogadishu where Mohamoud was sent to the orphanage. He grew up in the city, but when the country began to fall because of the civil war, he got out and made his way over time to the UK, where both he and his wife began working on behalf of the Somali refugees.  But even there they had a lot of work to do -- while they were trying to get their fellow Somalis to come together as a community, it seems that ongoing clan rivalries continued even among those caught up in the diaspora.

The concept of clan is an important one here, and it is a huge thread that runs through this book.  As the author notes,
"Most nationalities in Africa are fairly new constructs, political experiments, colonial carve-ups roping together different religions and ethnic groups. Not so with Somalis. They speak one language. They share one religion and culture. They occupy a single chunk of territory -- albeit not all within their borders....And yet, within that Somali identity, clans matter profoundly. At times they offer the only credible source of protection and justice. At times they divide and destroy." 
As the author also reveals, it doesn't end with clan -- each has a "sub-clan, or a sub-sub-clan..."  causing rifts and rivalries that would return with a vengeance once the central power structure under dictator Siad Barre collapsed.

Once the Nurs were settled in London, raising their children, getting involved etc., a phone call in June 2006 brought Nur back to Somalia, when "for the first time in fifteen years, the fighting had stopped throughout Mogadishu."  It was the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that finally stepped in to fill in "a vacuum," and as people were tired of anarchical warlord rule, Tarzan threw in his lot with the ICU saying that "these are the right people to make peace in Somalia,...No more clan rubbish." But things went wrong when ICU's militia, Al Shabab, began "confiscating weapons, building up its private army, and waiting for the right moment to unleash a far more radical agenda."  Moderates began losing ground to militants, who "did not want a deal," but rather "wanted war."  Dividing his time between Mogadishu and England, Nur eventually ended up as the titular Mayor of Mogadishu from 2010 to 2014, and Harding's book examines his policies, his politics, and his efforts to bring a city back from the rubble. It was in 2010 that a new provisional government was formed and he was called on to be a part of it; as the author states in an interview with NPR, he was "this one man who had a few city blocks where he could experiment and make a difference."

 To his credit, however, the author presents Nur not just as some sort of major hero but also examines competing views of this man since his presence sparked a major amount of controversy.  One person, for example, said of Nur that
"He's not the most technocratic guy. He's not someone who understands civil service reform, or how to build up local government. But maybe he was a perfect fit. Mogadishu needed a pioneer, a rookie, a rough, hard man. Someone to hold public rallies and talk about sensitive issues. Someone to pull the masses out of despair."
He was also accused of major corruption, of bringing problems to Mogadishu with the return of people who'd been part of the Diaspora, and at one point after having been fired as mayor,  he even says to the author that "anyone against me is a bad person," and that "Whoever is on my side is in the right. Whoever is against me is wrong."  He is evidently a figure about whom people will have to make up their own minds, but however he comes out in the historical record, he's a man worth reading about.

What makes this book so compelling is not just Nur's story, but the fact that the author, who's been in Somalia and Mogadishu a number of  times, really gets that it's important to get past the stereotypes by getting into the history of this area and the history of the people here in order to try to gain an understanding.  He makes no bones about describing misguided foreign policy based on a lack of cultural knowledge that actually may have helped with the current state of affairs in a less than positive way.  It's a book that people really need to read because, as I said, those who depend solely for the nightly news are only getting the very tip of the iceberg, possibly making faulty judgments on an entire people without really knowing anything about them. As this is becoming more prevalent nowadays, books like this one which inform but also reveal much compassion are absolutely necessary these days.

As I said earlier, I had no idea what to expect from this book, but I'm very impressed and highly, highly recommend it to anyone.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg

Viking, 2016
460 pp

(my copy from the publisher - thank you!)

"If the American dream were real, upward mobility would be far more in evidence." 

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is certainly one of the most informative books American history books I've read this year; quite frankly it was an eye opener.  If someone had told me that Thomas Jefferson referred to the white underclass of his own time as "rubbish" I probably wouldn't have believed it, since he's revered as a founding father of this nation.  But he actually did use that label, and he wasn't the only founding father or American politician to use that sort of term to describe the "wretched and landless poor" that have been part of our history and our culture since this country began.  And that's just for starters.  But that's the point here -- as the dustjacket blurb reveals, the author
"explodes our comforting myths about equality in the land of opportunity, uncovering the crucial legacy of the ever-present poor white trash."
She also, as she says in this interview, hopes that
"readers, pundits and politicians will stop repeating the tired myth of the American Dream and appreciate instead that the dismissal of the poor has been a crucial and consistent part of US history. Until we fully comprehend the past, our country will continue to paper over class division with empty rhetoric. For whether we like to acknowledge it or not, the history of "white trash" lies dangerously close to the heart of our deeply conflicted, long-ignored class politics."  
And quite frankly, if ever a time we see this in action, it is definitely now coming up to this year's presidential election, which makes this book extremely timely. So now for the nutshell summary:

Isenberg poses the following question in her book:
"How does a culture that prizes equality of opportunity explain, or indeed accommodate, its persistently marginalized people?," 
and it is this question, answered through an examination of an incredible array of source material, that is the focus of this study. As the dustjacket blurb notes, "white trash have always been near the center of major debates over the character of the American identity," and here she examines just how this has been the case over the last four hundred years. She does this by careful examination and analysis of several sources in contemporary politics, literature, scientific theory and various policies at different moments of America's history.

 Class is, as the author notes "the most outstanding, if routinely overlooked element in presuppositions about early settlement." It was mainly land ownership that perpetuated class distinctions, since it "was the principal source of wealth." Those on the margins without land "had little chance to escape servitude."  As this study also reveals, "The white poor have been with us in various guises" throughout our country's history.  The United States didn't even exist when some British notables began to classify the idle and "wandering" poor as  "human failure" and proposed exporting them to the New World, even going so far as to refer to the poor as "waste people," encompassing indentured servants, slaves, convicts, and men weighed down by debt. As settlement continued, the definition of "waste people" went on to include the landless poor, causing  a "stigma" that would "leave its mark on white trash" throughout our history.

Revered figures such as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Thomas Paine, John Adams and other founding fathers can take their own share of the blame for perpetuating class divisions. For instance,  Washington thought that the foot soldiers in the Continental army should consist only of "the lower class of people," while Jefferson was more harsh, describing public education as mainly for the benefit of students "raked from the rubbish." Even John Adams felt that it was natural for people to have a "passion for distinction," with his idea that "There must be one, indeed, who is the last and the lowest of the species." Poor whites have also been relegated to the status of their own particular, separate  "breed," as a means to marginalize these people so that the concept of equality and class could be maintained. As the author comments on this issue, she notes that "If whiteness was not an automatic badge of superiority ... then the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were unobtainable."

As she explains the historical circumstances behind all of this, we also learn that referring to these groups of people in terms that reiterate and reinforce the poor as "waste" has continued over four centuries:
"Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters.Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar Hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people." 
She also reveals that somehow their socioeconomic condition has long been thought by those outside of this group as being their own fault. They have been blamed for perpetuating their own bad "breeding," which along with pitting the white underclass against newly-freed slaves, was a factor used by later proponents of eugenics to bolster their positions. But even worse, they have been
"blamed for living on bad land, as though they had other choices. From the beginning they have existed in the minds of rural or urban elites and the middle class as extrusions of the weedy, unproductive soil. They are depicted as slothful, rootless vagrants, physically scarred by their poverty. The worst ate clay and turned yellow, wallowed in mud and muck, and their necks became burned by the hot sun. Their poorly clothed, poorly fed children generated what others believed to be a permanent and defective breed.  Sexual deviance? That comes from cramped quarters in obscure retreats, distant from civilization, where the moral vocabulary that dwells in town has been lost."  (320) 
And finally, another key point in this book, is that "Each era had its own means of distancing its version of white trash from the mainstream ideal," and that
 "the discomfort middle-class Americans feel when forced to acknowledge the existence of poverty highlights the disconnect between image and reality."
 In the same interview noted at the beginning of this post,  Isenberg states that
"It is difficult for Americans to talk about class because it contradicts our myths and rhetoric about the promise of the American Dream. Americans celebrate the abstract notion of equality, but history tells us that we have never embraced genuine equality." 
To me, she's hit the nail on the head with that last statement, and those who would care to argue otherwise are the ones who genuinely need to read this book.

White Trash  was very informative and I found myself going long stretches of time without being able to put the book down. This isn't a pop history for the masses sort of thing, and I would find myself repeatedly going to the back to read her notes, iPad at the ready.

 I also happen to agree with many of the major points she makes here, most especially her statement that
"We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality... Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power."  (316)
This is a dominant theme that carries on throughout her work, and she does prove her point over and over again.

As fascinated as I was with much of what she has to say here, I do have some issues.  My biggest problem here is when she says that "class has its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from intersection with race." I'm not so sure I quite buy that statement as it pertains to class in America.  Second, I didn't find the book to be an actual "400-year" history per se, since a large part of her focus is on the South at the expense of understanding the history of the poor white class in other regions in this country.  It's tough to be fully comprehensive when writing a history spanning so much time, and given how intensely she makes her case for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, aside from a brief discussion dealing with a few modern presidents, a bit on the eugenics movement, and "white trash" in books and on television, there is little depth of discussion regarding the white underclass in the twentieth century.

Despite its flaws though, I would certainly recommend it because it is a valuable study that really does debunk some of the  myths about the idealized conception of white equality in America as well as the reality behind the American dream itself.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, by Patrick Phillips

W.W. Norton, 2016
301 pp


"... the young fellers are growing up sort of with the idea that this is a white man's county."   -- (119)

Between September and October of 1912, all but a very few of the 1,098 African-American citizens (according to the 1910 census)  living in Forsyth County Georgia had been run out of the county.  The idea of "sundown towns," or communities which purposefully excluded African-Americans from living there, is nothing new, but this book, Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, reveals that not only were these people driven out of the county, but also that a "deliberate and sustained campaign of terror" on the part of white residents kept African-Americans out until the last few years of the 20th century.

The author, Patrick Phillips, had lived in Forsyth county, having moved there as a child from Alabama. It's not like he wasn't used to racism but when he heard some kids on his school bus making racial slurs, he finally asked a friend "why everyone in the county seemed to hate black people so much, especially since there were none of them around."  It was then that he heard a story that stuck with him and prompted him to start a search for the truth, wondering if perhaps it wasn't "just a racist fantasy."  In 2003 he found something that started him on his journey.  Doing some other research, he decided to check out that old story, got online, typed in "Forsyth" and "1912" into an old newspaper database and found out that yes indeed, the story he'd been told was absolutely true.  More than anything, it was a photograph in the October 4th issue of the Atlanta Constitution that gave him his first glimpses of the "faces of black Forsyth," in a story with the caption "Troops on Guard as Two Rapists Are Convicted: Story of Revolting Assault Arouses Great Indignation in Cumming Court."

courtesy of Powells.com

The "revolting assault" involving those pictured allegedly occurred in September, 1912, when three young African-Americans were accused of the rape and murder of a white girl.  Just about a week or so earlier, another white woman had woken up screaming because she'd woken to find an African-American man in her bedroom, four young men were arrested, and a black minister was horsewhipped for casting aspersions on the woman's character.  The second crime, however,  unleashed a coordinated campaign to get rid of every black citizen in the county -- involving "night riders," threats,   arson, and worse -- any kind of terror imaginable at the time was utilized here to run these people out of the county completely, including threats against the more upper/middle class white residents who had black household help.  As time went on, white people just sort of laid claim to land previously owned by the former Forsyth residents so that soon any vestiges of what were African-American homes, farms, churches, etc. soon disappeared, and life went on in a now-all white Forsyth County, basically erasing the fact that black people had even lived there. Things were so white that even the once-in-a-while visit by other African-Americans to the county would result in threats, which often included loaded guns pointed at the faces of black chauffeurs of visitors. Scariest yet -- none of this changed at all until determined marchers in 1987 came to Forsyth county to hold demonstrations; even then law enforcement wasn't enough to control the white anger and hatred.  Even then, things were very slow to change.

Stop for a moment and think about what I just said here about African-Americans not even being able to even enter the county until 1987.   You might ask "what about the civil rights movement of the 1960s," and the simple answer would be that it didn't happen for Forsyth. You might also ask why a book about events in 1912 is something you should read in 2016.  The answer for me is this: just this past summer I was in the middle of my morning routine of journal reading, perusing the news and going through my facebook news feed, and came across this photo of a billboard for a congressional candidate  in Tennessee:

To say that I was appalled and actually screamed out loud is putting it mildly, but getting back to Blood at the Root, it's obvious to me that the desire to "make America white again" mirrors Forsyth's "this is a white man's county" and this ugliness hasn't died out at all. 

There's so much going on in this book and obviously I can't possibly say everything I want to say about it here.  It's an incredibly difficult book to read on an emotional level -- seems like we're doing a backslide into this sort of intolerant, ugly and just downright frightening behavior yet again.  Just a few nit-picky things: not keen on the connection between the ouster of the Cherokees and the African-Americans -- this part needed a whole lot more, in-depth comparison to make it work for me. Secondly, even though Phillips did a great job in revealing how the president of the United States at the time reneged on campaign promises he used to gain the black vote  leaving many African-Americans poor, without hope of jobs and often fired from the positions they already held in Washington DC, I wouldn't have exactly labeled that as "racial cleansing" in the same sense he uses it regarding Forsyth County.  But once again, the best part of this well-researched book lies in how he traces the sad history of events to give his readers an insight into "the process by which racial injustice is perpetuated" here in the United States. 

So far, this book is picking up excellent reader reviews; as I said, it's a tough book to get through but it's also a story that needs to come out into the open air. Very well done and highly, highly recommended. 

News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel García Márquez

Vintage, 2008
originally published as Noticia de un secuestro, 1996
191 pp


When a disclaimer pops up at the beginning of every episode of a tv series I'm watching, to me it's like throwing down a challenge. We recently finished watching Narcos on Netflix, the series that over the course of the first two seasons was focused on Pablo Escobar.  At the beginning of each episode there's a blurb saying something along the lines of  some of what you're about to see has been fictionalized although it's based on real events.  Once we finished season two, my biggest questions focused on the truth behind US involvement, based on the portrayal of the creepy CIA agent running things behind the scenes, interfering with what the DEA was doing in the name of future American interests in the country.  Well, of course I did what any true-blue geek would do when it comes to the involvement of the CIA and the American military in a foreign country, and went to the National Security Archives (here) to try to get the real story on what was going on.  Reading each and every document mentioned in this summary, I saw that journalist Mark Bowden was discussed re his research, which led me to read his Killing Pablo,  which details US involvement in the hunt for Pablo Escobar.  That book, in turn, led me to News of a Kidnapping, which despite a number of readers' complaints, is neither "a snoooze" nor "a mediocre effort." Au contraire -- it's a book I read on the proverbial edge of my seat, hanging on every word.

In the acknowledgments section at the beginning, Marquez explains what's behind the writing of this book. In 1993, one of ten kidnapping victims,  Maruja Pachón  came to the author and "suggested" that he write a book about her abduction and her six months in captivity and her husband's "persistent efforts to obtain her release."  Marquez started working on it, but well into the first draft, he realized that
"it was impossible to separate her kidnapping from nine other abductions that occurred at the same time in Colombia."
Why? Well, by his reasoning, and as will be discussed in this book,
"They were not, in fact, ten distinct abductions -- as it had seemed at first -- but a single collective abduction of ten carefully chosen individuals, which had been carried out by the same group and for only one purpose."
 Behind these particular kidnappings, of course, was Pablo Escobar and his "Extraditables," whose motivation was to force the government into backing down on its stance on extradition to the United States.

In a nutshell, the central focus of News of a Kidnapping is the stories of these abductions, the victims' experiences in captivity, and the families' efforts to get these people released, but to tell that story, the author places these kidnappings in the wider context of Colombia's troubled history of politics, narco trafficking and terrorism.  It also follows how Escobar went from being host to "Politicians, industrialists, businesspeople, journalists..." at his Hacienda Nápoles to becoming "the biggest prey in our history. Of Escobar, Marquez writes that "The most unsettling and dangerous aspect of his personality was his total inability to distinguish between good and evil," which is shown here in terms of the wave of violence aimed at presidential candidates and other political officials, cops murdered for the bounty on their heads, and explosions in the streets that killed innocent victims.

 After reading what other readers have said about this book, it seems that many people were looking for Gabriel Garcia Marquez to give this book the magical realism touch he's applied in his novels.  A number of people were disappointed by the fact that this book is a journalistic take on events, rather than a novel.  I've seen it called "a snoooze," "boring," and "flat," and of course, there are those people who also watched Narcos and were expecting something along those lines, one person noting that she preferred the TV series. Hmmm.  Well, as I always say, to each his/her own, but seriously, it kept me on the edge of my chair pretty much the entire time with stomach twisted in knots. Then again, I'm the sort of person who likes to try to ferret out the truth of what's underneath the fiction, and in this case, it's pretty damn harrowing.

Highly, highly recommended.  And when you finish this one, read his Clandestine in Chile -- another excellent book.

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.