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

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.

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

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

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America's First Prison for Drug Addicts, by Nancy D. Campbell, JP Olsen, Luke Walden

Abrams, 2008
207 pp


The Narcotic Farm is a companion book to a PBS documentary of the same name.  The film itself is available online at Vimeo -- I watched it yesterday and just sat here sort of spellbound the entire time.  UPDATE: 2/29/2016: sadly, the documentary at Vimeo seems to have been pulled because of copyright issues.  Well, then, to whoever owns the copyright: why don't you put it on dvd at least so other people can watch it?????

I first heard of this book while reading Sam Quinones' Dreamland - up to then I had absolutely no clue that this place even existed.  The United States Narcotic Farm opened in 1935, just outside of Lexington, Kentucky; it was,  as the book notes,
"an anomaly, an institution where male and female convicts arrested for drugs did time along with volunteers who checked themselves in for treatment."  
In the 1920s, increasingly-strict drug laws and "aggressive enforcement" led to addicts being sent to prison "in droves," where they proved troublesome -- bringing drugs inside and getting non-addict prisoners hooked.  The authors note that by the late 1920s, about "a third of all federal prisoners were doing time on drug charges."   Social progressives of the time also took issue with the arrest of addicts, believing it to be "unjust" - so in 1929 two "government bureaucrats" lobbied for a measure that would create prisons just for convicted addicts, and by 1932, the construction of first of these institutions (the other in Ft. Worth) was underway.   Its administration fell under both the US Public Health Service and the Federal Bureau of Prisons - and on the day it opened the first director, Dr. Lawrence Kolb stated that addicts would not be sent to prison for what was basically "a weakness," but they would be able to receive
"the best medical treatment that science can afford in an atmosphere designed to rehabilitate them spiritually, mentally, and physically." 
They would not be "prisoners," but rather "patients." "Narco," as it was called by locals, was built on a thousand acres of farmland, the idea being that sunshine and hard work on the farm (and in other jobs) would help keep patients on the road to recovery and "cure both immoral behavior and also bad health."   It was a great idea -- not only  were people  lining up at the door to be admitted as an alternative to being thrown into the federal prison system, but it was founded on the question of whether addiction was a criminal offense or an illness that might possibly be treated, a question that still resonates today. It also served as an addiction research center, "the only laboratory in the world that had access to a captive population of highly experienced and knowledgeable drug addicts," where scientists tried to understand "the mysteries of addiction."   The book reveals that the legacy of the addiction research center [which moved to Baltimore and continued research under the auspices of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)], is that it
"established an entire scientific field and formulated the current definition of addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder. It also trained a cadre of addiction specialist who themselves went on to work as heads of medical schools, government officials, directors of drug treatment centers, and leaders in addiction research."

from the Atlanta Georgian, 1935

The book and the documentary together detail the story of Narco from its beginning in 1935 through its final days forty years later.  Some interesting highlights of its history include a few notables who passed through its doors -- both William S. Burroughs senior and junior,  as well as a host of jazz musicians including Chet Baker, Lee Morgan, and Sonny Rollins. Both Burroughs, father and son, wrote books about their time at Lexington: Senior in his Junkie, where there's an entire section about him signing himself in," and Junior with his Kentucky Ham (which I'm planning to read soon)  detailing his time as a patient there.   However, as time went on, it became quite obvious that the "cure" wasn't working, but I'll leave it to readers to discover why this was the case.  The institution's addiction research center also became the subject of congressional hearings in the 1970s regarding human experimentation soon after the story broke on the Tuskeegee syphillis experiments (the subject of James H. Jones' most excellent book Bad Blood),leading in part to the center's demise.  Interesting as well is the fact that the director, Harris Isbell, had accepted funds from the CIA over a nine-year period  as part of the CIA's research for MK-ULTRA and had given prisoners the drug, although to be fair, he notes that it was actually done as part of legitimate science.  It wasn't just LSD, though -- all manner of narcotics and other drugs were tested on the prisoners, who, by the way, were rewarded with the choice of drugs (go figure) or less time for their services.

The Narcotic Farm, in combination with the documentary, is absolutely fascinating. It is mainly a book of photos from the time with accompanying text, but it is certainly well worth the read.  It opens a brief window not only into attitudes about addiction at the time, but medical ethics, notions of treatment, and quite frankly it's both disturbing and enlightening at the same time.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Methland: The Death and Life of An American Small Town, by Nick Reding

Bloomsbury, 2009
255 pp


"... none of this is about a drug. It's about a system of government and an economy." 

"...If ever there was a chance to see the place of small American town in the era of the global economy, the meth epidemic is it." 

I enjoyed reading this book so much that I got a bit carried away with using small sticky-tab arrows on the side of its pages to mark things I really wanted to remember. I see now that it's pretty much impossible to make time and space for every marked page, so I'll do what I can. Just to be clear here, this book is not an exposé or a voyeuristic look into the lives of all of the meth addicts in this town, nor is there anything along the lines of say "Breaking Bad" here, so readers who are into that sort of thing should probably move along. This book is serious business and deserves to be read as such.

Methland  is a book very much worth reading. Even if there are people out there who pooh-pooh the idea that there's a meth "epidemic" sweeping small-town rural America, what really struck me was the bigger implications of, as the dustjacket blurb notes, "the connections between the real-life people touched by the drug epidemic and the global forces behind it."  As Mr. Reding states in an interview,
"...people are trying to destroy small town American life. And they're doing it economically...That's what big agriculture is doing and that's what the pharmaceutical industry is doing. Going back to the Clinton years, there's this notion that globalization is somehow beyond criticism, that it's a pure form of self-sustaining economic perfection.  It's not true, and if you'd like to see where it's least true, go to Oelwein." 
Oelwein, Iowa is the launching point of this book; it's a town which has been "left in the dust by the consolidation of the agricultural industry, a depressed local economy, and an out-migration of people."  It's also a place where "the economy and culture" are
 "more securely tied to a drug than to either of the two industries that have forever sustained the town: farming and small businesses."
However, it's not just Oelwein that is facing some pretty serious issues in this story.  While he makes people in Oelwein the central focus of his book, and examines the town's changes and its problems through their eyes, it is also very clear that what has happened there is happening throughout the midwest.  Oelwein, which was "on the brink of disaster" by May 2005,  is just one focal point for examining how the lobbyists and government supporters of both Big Agriculture and Big Pharma, as well as the effects of free trade (vis-a-vis NAFTA) have all contributed to catastrophic changes in rural, small-town America, which in turn contribute to the rising meth epidemic in these areas.

As he says,
"Meth's basic components lie equally in the action of government lobbyists, long-term trends in the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and the effects of globalization and free trade." 
and, in another interview, speaking about America's drug policies, the author sort of ties together all of these interconnected "components":
"Drugs here are about economy and politics. For instance, that legislation designed to give Big Ag enormous breaks in fact makes drug distribution easier in two ways: one, it sucks revenues out of towns that become major trans-shipment points; two, it draws more illegal immigrants, who traffickers use as mules. That's just one small example of the interrelation of things, and of how treating drugs as though they exist in a vacuum free from the influence of politics, economics, and sociology is essentially useless." 
While it's important to understand exactly how all of these components are interrelated and how this combination has become absolutely devastating to the towns, the people, and the overall well being of small-town, rural America,  the most fascinating parts of this book to me is the author's examination of the role and the power of Big Agriculture, huge conglomerates with their own powerful lobbyists and their own government supporters -- and I have to admit that for the most part, I had no clue that any of this was happening.

For a brief peek, one huge part of this book revolves around the changes in the food industry, most specifically, the area's meatpacking industries which for decades had supported a large proportion of wage earners.  When the area's Iowa Ham Plant was sold to Gillette in 1992,  the new owners made changes right away. For one thing, they "dismantled" the union, and worker wages plummeted. Aside from lowering the wages (the example given here was a drop from $18 to $6.20 per hour), while employed by Iowa Ham, the employees had benefits as well as stock ownership, which all went away.  A number of employees took on double shifts, using meth as a way to keep themselves awake and productive through both.   Medical coverage disappeared, and there was no guarantee of workers' comp in the event of an injury.  Within a year, a number of employees came to see the company doctor, who had noticed a rise in depression and an accompanying rise in drug use, noting that they were "turning to meth."

Employees fared less better when Gillette sold to Iowa Beef who sold to Tyson; not only did wages decrease with each turnover but by the time Tyson shut the plant completely in 2006, there were 99 workers left, a huge cut from 800.  This same sort of scenario repeated itself in Ottumwa, Iowa, where Hormel plant workers met pretty much the same fate when the company was bought by Excel Meat Solutions, a subsidiary of food-giant Cargill.   The paring down of the competition meant that bigger corporations,
"...the surviving companies, like Cargill, begin to effect political decisions through their enormous lobbying capabilities. The government no longer governs unimpeded: it does so in tandem with the major companies..."
Reding also points out that as Cargill "consolidated more and more of the meatpacking industry -- and the food industry in general,"  there was a growth in its lobbying power, its political leverage, and its profits.  To keep costs even lower, the author says, some of the meatpacking companies began "courting" undocumented workers from Mexico, hiring them at "abysmally low wages."   When adding in unemployment related to the decline of other industries, people leave, tax revenue shrinks, less services can be offered or paid for, local education suffers, infrastructure suffers, and all of that (and more) takes its physical, mental and emotional toll on the entire town. And then there's meth use and production within this small town: while  Reding states explicitly that it would be "hard to argue convincingly" that "the surge in meth use in Oelwein was a direct result" of the wage cuts,  he does say that that it's pretty much impossible to not notice the "400 percent increase in local meth production at the same time," if one goes by the number of meth labs that were "busted.

While, as I said earlier, how these all come together to create this sad and most untenable situation is the main thrust of this book,  it is also a story about real people in a real town with real lives, some of whom have shared their experiences with the author to offer firsthand accounts.  Many of them have through no fault of their own been caught up in circumstances largely beyond their control; some of them do what they can in what seems like a hopeless situation.   Personally, this book not only opened my eyes, but the author's research and his own observations made for great reading on a human level as well. This is also a book that seriously pissed me off -- as it should for anyone who reads it.

Lots of readers have made several complaints about errors running throughout this book;  I didn't take the time to stop and look at that sort of thing because I was way more concerned about what the author was actually saying, which is backed up with actual research.  Once again, whether or not readers agree or disagree with the author's conclusions, this is a book that needs to be read. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones

Bloomsbury, 2015
368 pp


It is no secret that there is a massive heroin epidemic in this country.  After finishing this book this morning, I spent quite a lot of time online researching the topic and it's a hot one. Less than two years ago, a  writer for the West Virginia Gazette made the claim that "West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation." That same year (2014) The Atlantic reported that
"Ten years ago prescription painkiller dependence swept rural America. As the government cracked down on doctors and drug companies, people went searching for a cheaper, more accessible high. Now, many areas are struggling with an unprecedented heroin crisis."   
The Economist has also weighed in, and now this "unprecedented heroin crisis" has even become a hot topic among current American presidential candidates who are adding this problem to their respective platforms.

This heroin epidemic and the unprecedented amount of deaths from overdoses is a topic that has largely been kept under wraps out of shame for the most part, largely from white middle- and upper-class parents who didn't want anyone else to know that there was a drug problem in their homes. However, today's  heroin problem seems to have had its roots in "Appalachia and rural America," or as the author calls it "the voiceless parts of the country." Formerly, New York had been the "country's heroin center," serving as "the nation's principal heroin hub through most of the twentieth century."  That all changes with the targeting of more rural areas by enterprising dealers from a very small area in Mexico, known as the Xalisco boys.

Dreamland takes its readers into examining the burgeoning heroin problem. In doing so,  the author questions and charts how the "realities of American medicine and medical marketing of the 1980s and 1990s" came to be "connected to why, years later, men from a small town in Mexico could sell so much heroin in parts of the country that had never seen it before."  Several things come together here: 1) the methodologies of these small-town dealers, 2) a huge unprecedented push by a leading pharmaceutical company trying to market and sell their opioid wares, most importantly for this book,  OxyContin, 3) economic decline in formerly industrial areas, and 4) the changes in how doctors treated pain among their patients (along with changes brought by managed health care).

Using Portsmouth, Ohio as an example, he tracks how a city that in 1979 and 1980 had been flourishing and had been selected as an "All-American City," had declined to a level of a "Junkie Kingdom" by the 1990s.  In Portsmouth at the turn of the century,
"Purdue Pharma's promotion of OxyContin and the crusade to liberalize opiate prescribing were seeing their first noxious effects across southern Ohio, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky. Portsmouth for a while had a pill mill for every eighteen residents."  (207)
There were so many pill mills around Portsmouth that it "became a destination..." bringing in people from Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana.  The increase in SSI due to scarcity of jobs in these areas  also increased the number of people receiving Medicaid. One Portsmouth city nurse said that they "had always assumed that Purdue Pharma knew that so many people [in the area] had Medicaid cards... and that's why they marketed OxyContin so hard around here."  Switching gears for a moment to the marketing of OxyContin, Quinones notes the following:
"The decade of the 1990s was the era of the blockbuster drug, the billion-dollar pill, and a pharmaceutical sales force arms race was a part of the excess of the time. The industry's business model was based on creating a pill -- for cholesterol, depression, pain or impotence -- and then promoting it with growing numbers of salespeople. During the 1990s and into the next decade, Arthur Sackler's vision of pharmaceutical promotion reached its most exquisite expression as drug companies hired ever-larger sales teams. In 1995, 35,000 Americans were pharmaceutical sales reps. Ten years later, a record 110,000 people -- Sackler's progeny all -- were traveling the country selling legal drugs in America." (133) 
As stated earlier, Sackler "founded modern pharmaceutical advertising," even getting his "drug-company clients" to sponsor and pay for continuing medical education, seminars attended by doctors as part of a requirement for them to keep their medical licenses.  There, he most aptly realized, "drug companies could grab the ears of physicians."

 Buying and selling OxyContin (which people would crush and smoke for faster effect) led to more than a few entrepreneurial types driving "addicts"  to pain clinics, taking half the pills the addicts would receive with their prescriptions, and then selling them.  One Portsmouth woman, looking back, described her business as "resembling a McDonald's drive-through."  Tough times required tough measures, and soon Portsmouth even had an economy built on pills.  Then, right behind the pill mills, "heroin came to town," in Southern Ohio at much cheaper prices and easier to acquire.  This same pattern would be repeated again and again throughout a number of states, with the Xalisco boys at the wheel driving their product to people "already tenderized" by OxyContin, leaving law enforcement by and large unable to keep up.

The dealers from Xalisco started in Los Angeles'  San Fernando Valley, figuring out how to "take heroin off the street, out of the parks," by delivering the drug after receiving a phone call directing them to their clients, almost like an Uber service for heroin delivery.  By figuring out what the cops and federal agents were looking for and doing exactly the opposite (no large amounts of heroin on their person, no drug stashes in their rented apartments, and paid drivers), they did very well. They carried no weapons, avoided the drug gangs that controlled the streets of LA, and were quite successful.  They also expanded their markets, avoiding bigger cities and started noticing patterns -- for example,  people gathered at methadone clinics who would be interested in their very cheap product and low-risk, personalized delivery service. As members of different "cells" were arrested, they were replaced just as quickly.  Of course, they weren't the only game in town as far as heroin goes, but they had a model that both worked and appealed to their customers,  delivering heroin "like pizza."

Obviously, I have understated what's to be found in this book, but for anyone at all interested in this topic, Dreamland is a work of investigative journalism that lays bare the roots of our modern heroin epidemic, and as Philip Eil notes in his article at The Millions, the "wide-reaching approach" taken by the author "seems necessary to convey the 'catastrophic synergy' when the paths of Purdue Pharma and the Xalisco Boys cross." Whether or not you agree with the author's conclusions, it is a fascinating book and I for one, couldn't put it down.  Looking at what other readers had to say about it, a lot of people zone in on the repetition that is found throughout and I can understand their complaints -- the number of times he uses the phrase "delivering heroin like pizza" is frankly annoying. But this is a very minor complaint that seems pretty irrelevant in comparison to what a reader will come away with after finishing this book.  
I highly, highly recommend this book -- it is an eye-opener.