Thursday, August 27, 2020

A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America's Hurricanes, by Eric Jay Dolin


9781631495274
Liveright Publishing/WW Norton, 2020
392 pp

hardcover


As someone living in South Florida, about a third of a mile as the crow flies from the coast,  reading this book during a very active hurricane season may not have been the brightest idea in terms of mental health.  I needn't have worried: it was so well done that I found myself completely engrossed almost immediately.    As it turns out, all is not doom and gloom here -- as the dustjacket blurb reveals,  it is a melding of
"American history, as it is usually told, with the history of hurricanes, showing how these tempests frequently helped determine the nation's course." 
 From the beginning, the author acknowledges that in writing the "history of the American hurricane," this book must be "selective," given that there have been  quite possibly "more than a thousand" of them over the past five hundred years. Among the individual hurricanes discussed throughout the book,  found here also is a history of meteorology,  which Dolin notes is "intriguing, and at times rather nasty,"  the "influence of hurricanes on the course of empire, the outcomes of war," "critical innovations in communication, aviation, computer, and satellite technology," and he examines how
"the history of American hurricanes forces us to confront thorny questions of how we can learn to survive and adapt to the continued barrage that is sure to come from the greatest storms on Earth."
Beginning with Columbus, the author moves forward through time as he highlights various storms that had some sort of historical impact, for example two which played a "critical role" in the early colonial history of Florida, one of which kept the French from conquering the Spanish.  The 1609 storm that affected  the people of Jamestown also "left its mark on literary history" as Shakespeare's inspiration for The Tempest.  The Treasure Fleet Hurricane off the coast of Florida hit in 1715, sinking an entire fleet of ships carrying "jewels, coins, ingots, and "exotic goods" and ramped up piracy in the Atlantic.   Moving into the 20th century,  the author highlights the  1900 Galveston Hurricane that not only  killed thousands of people but also remains the "deadliest natural disaster in American history."  There's an entire chapter on "Death and Destruction in the Sunshine State," beginning with the 1926 hurricane that "battered Miami," and then the book moves on to more recent hurricanes including Hugo, Camille, Andrew and Sandy through Harvey, Irma and Maria.  As he is discussing these storms, the author adds in the technological advances over time in the areas of forecasting, weather science, and discusses the pioneering efforts of those who put themselves potentially in harm's way, for example, those people who were brave enough to fly into the eye of the hurricane itself.   Most importantly, Dolin reveals that throughout our history with hurricanes, it's not been just a matter of stories about "death, destruction, and despair," but also "charity, kindness, humor, and resilience."

 A Furious Sky is one of the most compelling and seriously educational nonfiction books of my reading year so far, combining history, personal accounts, the science of meteorology, the growth of forecasting/prediction technologies, politics, and a look at the very real hazards of climate change, which has the potential to bring ever more powerful storms into our lives.   It's tough to do a broad history like this one, but Mr. Dolin's done a fine job here and the book makes for  great reading even for people like me who aren't particularly gifted in the realm of science.  Very highly recommended.


Monday, June 8, 2020

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic, by Eric Eyre



9781982105310
Scribner, 2020
293 pp

hardcover

Even after being diagnosed and beginning treatment for Parkinson's in the midst of it all, the author of Death in Mud Lick, Eric Eyre, stuck to his guiding principle of "sustained outrage" as he continued to investigate and to report on the flooding of opioids into West Virginia, ultimately winning a Pulitzer in 2017 for his hard work. The word dogged doesn't even begin to describe his determination to get to the truth.   At the same time, this is not just another book on the opioid epidemic -- here we are provided with an intense scrutiny of what goes on behind the scenes of a number agencies which are supposed to be regulating the flow of these powerful drugs to safeguard the population. What happens here is real, it is not at all pretty, and if you had to choose only one book on the topic, this would be the one.


Five years before his death, William "Bull" Preece fell off of a ladder while working at the Penn Coal Mine in West Virginia.  The resulting back injury led to a prescription for pain pills; when that prescription ran out, he would find doctors who would give him more OxyContin and Lortab, and two years after his accident, his older sister Debbie realized that he was addicted.  While she tried to help him, including getting him into rehab, and while he tried to help himself at a methadone clinic, the pull of the pills was just too much.  Eventually he died of an overdose in 2005.  Debbie was left with several empty prescription bottles with their labels still intact:
"ninety Valium; sixty oxycodone; ninety OxyContin, an extended-release form of oxycodone, and thirty Zestril tablets."
When Bull died, his autopsy revealed that he had "five times the lethal limit" for oxycodone in his blood, and the case was closed after his death was ruled an accident.  For Debbie, however, someone had to pay.  She hired attorney  Jim Cagle, and by the summer of 2007 they filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a doctor who had written Bull's prescriptions, and also against the local pharmacy that filled them.  Had this been the entire story, it would have been interesting enough, but this is just the jumping-off point for what follows.  As it turns out, Debbie Preece, who had had her own previous trouble with the law, and her attorney had missed an important part of the opioid epidemic, the distributors who were responsible for the flow of the drugs into the area.

Enter reporter Eric Eyre, who covered the state government, who had heard newly-elected state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey  (the "first Republican attorney general in West Virginia since 1933")  was about to kill off a lawsuit "on behalf of the citizens of West Virginia" that his predecessor had filed against "Cardinal Health, Amerisource-Bergan, and a dozen other prescription drug distributors" responsible for flooding the area with an overabundance of opioids.   Eyre was also "tipped off" that Denise Henry Morrisey, the wife of the the new AG, had served as lobbyist for Cardinal Health since 2002.  Making things even more interesting,  Patrick Morrisey had himself been a lobbyist for "two trade groups" that represented Cardinal and a couple of other distributors. Regarding the lawsuit, it seems that Morrisey did not want the two attorneys the former state AG had appointed to prosecute the case, preferring to have his own attorneys instead.  One of these attorneys just happened to be Jim Cagle, the same lawyer who had earlier worked on Debbie Preece's behalf.

Death in Mud Lick puts an eagle-eyed focus on Eyre's efforts to gain information from not only the huge and powerful drug distribution firms, but also from various government officials and government agencies, and reveals how Morrisey in turn set out to "derail" Eyre's investigation.  Just reading this book frustrated me to no end -- not because it is bad (because it is most certainly not), but because, as Eyre writes in the preface,
"As the addiction crisis spread across the country, some health advocates sounded the alarm, but industry lobbyists snuffed out policymakers' efforts to stop the scourge. They found politicians willing to do their bidding.  The regulators -- the DEA, the pharmacy board -- failed to do their jobs. Pablo Escobar and El Chapo couldn't have set things up any better." 
  I am a natural cynic and even I was shocked at what goes on behind the scenes to protect not the citizens of this nation but rather the ultra-lucrative pharmaceuticals industry.  I am a huge believer in the power of investigative journalism done the right way, and I have to say that Death in Mud Lick is one of the best books I've read on this subject.  After what he went through during the course of his investigations, Mr. Eyre deserves all accolades this book may receive.


Monday, May 18, 2020

Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era, by Jerry Mitchell





"Those guys got away with murder...It's not too late."





9781451645132
Simon & Schuster, 2020
418 pp

hardcover


It's January, 1989 in Jackson Mississippi, and reporter Jerry Mitchell was on assignment for his newspaper The Clarion-Ledger to cover the state premier of  the film Mississippi Burning.  He normally had the "court beat," so this was something different for him.  Mitchell found himself seated next to someone who seemed to know a lot about what was and wasn't true about the film, based on the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.  As it happened, that man turned out to be retired special agent Roy K. Moore, who had been in charge of the FBI in Mississippi at the time.  Later, when the rest of the press had gone, Mitchell stayed behind to listen to Moore talk to two other men, another FBI agent and a journalist who had covered the events at the time.  During that conversation he learned that nobody had ever been prosecuted for the murders of the three men, even though "more than twenty Klansmen' were responsible.  Mitchell wondered how it was possible that twenty people, their identities known by locals who'd never turned them in, could get away with murder.   Why hadn't the state of Mississippi done anything about it?  From further conversations with Moore, Mitchell learned that although one killer eventually talked and had given the FBI what it needed for prosecution, the governor of the state "couldn't" do so, "essentially refusing to uphold its own murder laws."

As Mitchell began to research this case he came to learn about the connections between the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which "worked with and even helped fund the white Citizens' Councils" to help fight desegregation in the state, and  the murders of the three activists.  He'd hoped that by bringing certain facts to light he would "spark"  the Attorney General to "pursue new  charges in the case," but it was not to be and the case remained cold.   Feeling like he'd failed, his colleagues reminded him that they had been able to help
"ferret out unreported details about a twenty-five-year-old murder case that many powerful figures had wanted to keep sealed."
That was at least "something."   He  continued to read about other civil-rights "cold cases," and eventually his research  would lead him to into the murder of Medgar Evers, the firebombing of the home and store of Vernon Dahmer Sr. which led to his death,  and the September 1963 bombing of the  Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls -- Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.    All of these crimes were the work of members of the KKK; none of those responsible had ever been punished.  The main issue facing Mitchell was that time was not on his side: witnesses and suspects were dying off.  In a "race against time," Mitchell was determined to bring the details of these crimes into the light through his investigations, hoping that his work might be a driving force into not only getting these old cases reopened, but also that people like Byron de la Beckwith, Sam Bowers, and Bobby Cherry (the KKK members responsible) would finally be brought to justice for their crimes.   Yet, what continued to "gnaw" at him after these successes was the "Mississippi Burning" murders that by 1998, still had not been "reckoned with."  Undaunted, and even as the "pool of witnesses and evidence" decreased, Mitchell continued his efforts for justice in this particular case, determined to bring Edgar Ray Killen, "the moving force" behind these murders, to trial.

The book is divided into five parts, each section under the names of the victims of these horrific crimes, beginning and ending with James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.  It is his contention that the "Mississippi Burning" murders were not only the "result of a months-long battle plan," but also that the head of the Mississippi branch of the KKK (the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan), Sam Bowers, meant to send a message
"not just to African-Americans and civil rights activists throughout the state but to the nation at large.  Bowers meant to tell all of America who held power in Mississippi, who called the shots, who could do as they pleased, and who needed to live in fear."
What was just as important, notes Mitchell, is the message of the "murderers' impunity."  As long as they were still in power, as long as they were still free and living among the public, the message would continue to be heard and understood not just in Mississippi, but throughout the entire nation as well.  In each and every case presented here, he offers clear proof of how these people managed to maintain this impunity and escape prosecution;  what I discovered here chilled me not only down to my bones, but to my very soul.  Quite honestly, I was so stunned by what came to light here that right after I'd finished, I could not move for the longest time, just sitting here staring into space and trying to digest what I'd just read. 

While he notes other cases he'd worked on but could not solve, saying that he felt that he'd failed more often than succeeded, I say that he should be beyond proud of what he's accomplished; in bringing out the truth behind these four crimes, he also paved the way for bringing about a long-overdue measure of justice.    He had been told a number of times just to "let the past be," but he has long believed that "Truth rules, while hate thrives on obfuscation, murkiness and fear."   It is important, he says, to know and to remember the truth of what came before in the "past waves of white supremacy" so that we are able to act now and in the future. 

With notes, bibliography, index, etc., the page count runs to just over four hundred pages, but I was so completely engrossed in what I was reading here that the hours just flew by.  I do think it would have helped to have included photos along with text,  but I sat with tablet in hand when I wanted to match names with faces, or to reacquaint myself with the four cases discussed here. And although this rarely happens, I happen to agree with the dustjacket blurber who says that Race Against Time is a "landmark book" and "essential reading for all Americans," adding only that it should be read especially by anyone with even a passing interest in civil rights both past and present.  It's one I'll never, ever forget.


****
My thoughts are from a reader's perspective; here are a couple of real reviews of this book:

from David J. Garrow, at the Washington Post
from Dean Jobb at The Southern Review of Books



Friday, May 15, 2020

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard

9780767913737
Anchor Books, 2006
416 pp

paperback

The River of Doubt begins with Theodore Roosevelt hovering between life and death "deep in the Brazilian rain forest."  It was apparently not quite his time though, as he would go on to finish out his journey through an uncharted tributary of the Amazon, not entirely unscathed but living to tell the tale.  It is a harrowing story of an expedition in which whatever could go wrong did go wrong.  At the same time the author offers a look at the often-unforgiving natural world surrounding these men; she also examines what it was about these particular men that got them through the dangers they faced on their nearly one-thousand mile journey. 


Suffering from a "bruised spirit" after a landslide defeat in his bid for president in 1913, Theodore Roosevelt decided to accept an offer from the Museo Social in Buenos Aires to be a guest lecturer.  He was offered a rather large sum of money for three engagements, but beyond the fees, the trip would allow him the opportunity to see his son Kermit who was working in Brazil.  Roosevelt also had a "passion" for natural history and science, and wondered if perhaps he might be able to somehow "indulge" that passion while in South America. Turning to a friend who just happened to be the president of the American Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt was offered "full support," and was eventually put together with old friend Father John Augustine Zahm, who was at that time planning his own expedition to the Amazon.   Roosevelt was, of course, delighted and at this stage of the game anticipated "a 'delightful holiday' that would provide 'just the right amount of adventure.' " 

The plan was that the expedition would travel north from Buenos Aires by boat along "well-known navigable rivers to the Amazon."  From there the group would go up the Rio Negro and down the Orinoco before crossing Venuezula to the Atlantic.  Plans changed, however, when Brazil's minister of foreign affairs suggested to Roosevelt that perhaps he would prefer to take a trip "down an unknown river" with Colonel Cândido Rondon, who had earlier discovered and named the Rio da Duvida, but knew very little about either its "course or character."  Rondon would use the opportunity to do a survey of this uncharted territory; it would be more dangerous than the route planned by Zahm for sure, but it was just the challenge that Roosevelt "had been yearning for."   Little did anyone know exactly what was in store for them once they set off on this journey that would ultimately leave Roosevelt at death's doorway.

Millard has done a fine job here, using a number of primary sources which include the journals of other expedition members to give a more rounded view of not only events but of the Amazon itself.  Her writing about the flora, fauna, and people indigenous to the area become integral to the story of the expedition as the group moves further into uncharted territory.  She also realizes that this is not solely Teddy Roosevelt's story; indeed it is probable that no one would have survived had it not been for Colonel Rondon.  Throughout his many years of working in the Brazilian wilderness, Rondon had become a devoted and dedicated advocate for the country's indigenous people; Millard notes that even when attacked by them, Rondon's men had orders to never retaliate.   Rondon left gifts for them instead, and although his peaceful tactics toward the Cinta Larga people was an issue of debate between Roosevelt and the Colonel, it seems that it worked, as the expedition, which could have been decimated "by consensus" of the tribe, was allowed to continue on down the river.


Roosevent and Rondon; photo from the Theodore Roosevelt Center, Dickinson State University

While the book is informative,  the way Candice Millard wrote it also offers readers a suspenseful narrative as to how they survived, as the back-cover blurb reveals,
"an unbelievable series of hardships, losing their canoes and supplies to punishing whitewater rapids, and enduring starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning, and a murder within their own ranks." 
I am focused on people in whatever I read, and here, when it comes right down to it,  the question becomes this: when at a point of no return where things are at their worst, what is it within people that allows them to carry on?  In that sense, The River of Doubt is not just about the physical journey made by these men, but a sort of journey of self-discovery as well. 

At times a true white knuckler, The River of Doubt makes for compelling, page-turning reading. And don't miss the PBS American Experience episode "Into the Amazon" which brings this book and this expedition to life. I am a huge fan of Amazon exploration narratives, and this one is definitely high on my list of good ones. 

very much recommended

Sunday, April 19, 2020

La séquestrée de Poitiers, by André Gide

9782070369775
Gallimard, 1977
138 pp

paperback

A few weeks back the name Blanche Monnier cropped up during an online discussion, reminding me that I had a book about her case  on my foreign language shelves.  Oho, I said to no one, reading this book might be a great way to pull my brain away from coronavirus stress.  First of all, it's in French so it's different from my general reading fare,  and then, of course, Monnier's story is so bizarre that I figured it would hold my interest for the duration.   It did. 

I first came across Gide's interest in both the Monnier case and that of Marcel Redureau (also included in this volume) a while back while reading Sara Maza's excellent Violette Noziere: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris (University of California Press, 2011), so I picked up this little book, but by the time it arrived I had likely already moved on to something else and so the poor thing sat gathering dust until the recent above-mentioned conversation.   Reading it now, I'd only made it through the first few pages and I was glued.   As someone who reads mainly to try to understand what Gide calls the "unexplored regions on the map of the human soul, the terrae incognitae," and reads historical crime to see what it says about various facets of contemporary society,  I found both cases covered in  La Séquestrée de Poitiers to be utterly fascinating, and I can certainly recommend it to others with the same mindset.

 Based on a multitude of documents on the case which Gide studied, the book begins with the story of Blanche Monnier, although here the family name has been changed to Bastian and Blanche's to Mélanie, who was found living in horrific conditions after twenty-five years of confinement in her mother's home.  The case made for sensational headlines since the "respectable" Monnier family had been held in high esteem for many, many years.   I will refer to her as Mélanie since it is written as such here, but think Blanche.  On receiving an anonymous letter that "a spinster" is "locked up" in the home of Madame Bastian, "half-starved ... for the past twenty-five years -- in a word, in her own filth," the attorney general of Poitiers ordered the Commissaire of police to go the address on rue de la Visitation to investigate.  It seems that the story told in the letter was true;  Mélanie was removed from the home and taken to the hospital, while her mother and her brother were arrested. While I won't go into any detail (if you wish to read about it, you can find one version here) the point of Gide's examination of this case was this:  how was it that this "monstrous-seeming case" which led to "public outrage," one  "... in which Madame Bastian and her son appeared clearly guilty from the start," could end "with the accused being acquitted?"  It's actually in combing through what these documents reveal about life and society in this provincial town that the real answers are discovered.


from All That's Interesting

Next up is the case of Marcel Redureau, a fifteen year-old boy who in 1913 seemingly for no reason went to work one day and killed his employer's entire family and their servant,  leaving only a small boy behind. Seven people lay dead in a most gruesome fashion, and Redureau was arrested and confessed that it was a particular remark made by his employer that had set him off. While the crime is particularly heinous, Gide's focus here is on the prosecution and the trial of this boy, which I won't go into, but which led him to question the "current psychological expertise" which "doesn't allow us to understand everything."  And then of course, there's the jury, which clearly failed in its duty ...

 Thom Nickel states in his 2016 article at The Spirit of The Riverwards that Gide, who had a "fascination and even obsession with crime and punishment,"  could see "facts that judges and jurors overlooked."  He goes on to state that "Gide recorded his impressions and analyses of judicial cases while serving as a juror," writing about them in depth,
"examining both the facts of the case and the background of the accused in a way that dovetailed with his lifelong rejection of traditional morality." 
 which is beyond evident throughout this little book.  Don't get hung up on the somewhat sordid details ... it is well worth reading for Gide's understanding of what's actually happening in these two cases.




******

 Note: To those people who had asked me if there was an English translation and to whom I said no, I didn't realize it at the time, but these two cases are part of a larger work I just bought today called Judge Not(originally published in 1930) translated by Benjamin Ivry.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, by Michelle McNamara

True crime books make up only a tiny fraction of my home library, and those are generally accounts of  crimes from long ago.   I had picked up I'll Be Gone in the Dark when it came out in paperback after I'd watched a tv documentary about the Golden State Killer; I knew then that I had to read about it.   Once I opened I'll Be Gone in the Dark, I could not stop reading.  To borrow Megan Abbott's reaction blurbed at the beginning, "This book just knocked me over."   I finished the book by dinnertime.







9780062319791
Harper Perennial, 2019 (hardcover ed. 2018)
344 pp
paperback


"Golden State Killer" was the name given by author Michelle McNamara to the real-life monster who was responsible for 50 sexual assaults in Northern California and ten or more murders in the southern part of the state.  While law enforcement officials in both areas investigating these cases were stumped and completely frustrated over a number of years, a breakthrough came in 2001 when DNA proved that the same individual had been responsible for all of these horrific crimes.  She had originally used that name in an article she'd written for Los Angeles Magazine in 2013; prior to that the guy had been known as "The East Area Rapist" in the north and the "Original Night Stalker" in the south, collectively EARONS once his DNA had been identified as having been linked.  He had started his reign of terror in the 1970s; by 1986 he seemed to have stopped.  In I'll Be Gone in the Dark she not only examines the crimes and the hunt for this man, but also provides a rather empathetic aspect  to the victims and their families, to the men and women in law enforcement on whom this case took a huge toll in some cases, and plays it straight about her own obsession with this case that she had wanted to see through until the end, hoping that the guy would be caught. 

She begins with a sort of teaser about a summer hunting for the Golden State Killer from her daughter's playroom.  She says that "every obsession needs a room of its own," and there, after husband and child were asleep, she did her work on her laptop "surrounded by a half-dozen stuffed animals and a set of miniature pink bongos."  I use the word "teaser" because this is just a glimpse of what's to come as we read about all the reports, archives and transcripts she read, all of the countless hours of work she and her researcher put into trying to find the guy, her meetings with members of law enforcement, trips to scenes of crimes, interviews with victims or their families, reaching out to fellow DIY detectives online, and even the unanswered questions left behind after her death.

 It's this obsession that captured me completely throughout this book, the thread I followed and hung on to while reading.  In part two, for example, via early drafts of Michelle's Los Angeles Magazine article, she speaks about a woman she calls "The Social Worker" who had lived in the east Sacramento areas "through the height of it" who warned Michelle to "take care of herself. Or it can consume you."  Michelle's answer: "Can?"  She also states that she didn't laugh about the warning, but "agreed to pretend" that they were "skirting a rabbit hole...rather than deep inside it."  When it's not her talking, but rather sections pieced together from notes, for instance,  I definitely noticed.

Gillian Flynn says in her introduction that "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" is a "snapshot of time, place, and person."  This is so eloquently captured throughout the book, but as she also notes, it's Michelle's writing about  the people here that helps to power the story.  Her husband says in his afterword that
"What interested her, what sparked her mind and torqued every neuron and receptor, were people ... " 
which is so obvious as she writes about the victims, their families, or people caught strongly in an aura of fear and utter terror just living their daily lives
"on their way back from the disco club, or a double feature of 'Earthquake' and 'Airport 77' at the drive-in, or the Jack LaLanne gym"
who knew that anyone could be a victim, any home could be the next target,  or that even the presence of a man in the house wasn't a guarantee of safety.   She also realizes the costs paid by the men and women of law enforcement for whom the Golden State Killer
 "still haunts their dreams.  He's ruined their marriages. He's burrowed so deeply inside their heads that they want to, or have to, believe that if they locked eyes with him, they'd know." 
The man responsible has left a huge wake behind him; his years of terror,  it seems, have taken a personal toll on everyone, including the author.

I spent an entire day on nothing but this book; once I was in that was it.  Outside world gone. Given that I'm not really a huge fan of modern true-crime accounts, and that they're not a usual stop in my reading repertoire,  that says something. I will say that it was a bit choppy in construction which was a bit of a put off, and I'm not quite sure I was as attentive in the final chapter when it was mostly a lot of facts related by Michelle's lead researcher and a journalist friend of hers.

 The book ends with an epilogue entitled "Letter To An Old Man," in which she predicts that
"One day soon, you'll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You'll hear footsteps coming up your front walk...The doorbell rings.  No side gates are left open. You're long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell. 
This is how it ends for you."

And in the end, that's how it was.   Unfortunately, for all of the time, energy, determination and sleepless nights she put into trying to help solve this case (the "obsessive search" of the title), McNamara died in 2016, thus never got to witness the moment she'd been waiting for.   I find that tragic in a very big way, since throughout this book I could absolutely sense how very much she wanted this guy to be caught, locked up, and put away for the rest of his life.

recommended.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America, by Candacy Taylor

9781419738173The Abrams Press, 2020
360 pp

hardcover


"it didn't tell you if a place had a good steak, or good seafood, or had a soft bed...it told you where you would be safe."



This book is a must read.  An absolute must read.

I'd first heard of the Green Book while reading Matt Ruff's novel Lovecraft Country a couple of years back.  In the novel, set in the 1950s, one of the characters was the editor/publisher of something called The Safe Negro Travel Guide.  I remember at the time thinking what a crap thing it was that something like The Safe Negro Travel Guide had to even exist, and wondering if there was some underlying truth to it I looked it up, and sure as s**t there it was, The Negro Motorist Green Book.  I was appalled, actually, a) that this was a real thing and b) at my own ignorance -- I had no clue that it existed.



However sad the fact of its existence, it turned out to be, as author Candacy Taylor notes, "an ingenious solution to a horrific problem,"  representing 
"the fundamental optimism of a race of people facing tyranny and terrorism."  
In Overground Railroad, the author (who has visited over four thousand Green Book sites, and  provides some of the photos she's taken in the book)  offers an across-the-decades overview of the  Green Book, published from 1936-1967, setting her work within both historical and geographical contexts of American history.   In doing so, she examines racism and other forces at work in this country that led to the necessity of creating such a guide.   Victor Green, who founded the Green Book in 1936, most likely made no money from it, but as the author notes,
"his reward was much more valuable than money, because for every business he listed, he may have saved a life."
As she also states, "real change can come from simple tools that solve a problem," which is what made the Green Book so powerful.

  The dustjacket blurb for Overground Railroad states that
"During the Jim Crow years and into the civil rights movement, travel for black America was difficult and dangerous. Black travelers couldn't eat, sleep, get gas, or shop at most white-owned businesses."
Over the years that the Green Book was published, racial segregation was in "full force" across this country.  While the automobile offered African-American families  a larger measure of personal freedom and a chance to "venture out onto America's highways and enjoy the country they helped build," they didn't have access to a lot of the US due to segregation.  Beaches, swimming pools, golf courses, theaters, parks, and other facilities were either whites only or had separate areas for African-Americans.    "White Customers Only" signs were everywhere, and black people suffered humiliating experiences when they were more often than not denied access to basic services/necessities -- even Coke machines were off limits in some cases.  Prior to the advent of the Interstate Highway system most long-distance auto traveling was done via country roads, and then along small-town main streets where black travelers could likely be subject to harassment or worse by local law enforcement.  Sundown towns (and sundown counties, for that matter) also posed various dangers for African-American motorists who just might find themselves stranded on their roads at night, and as the author mentions, there were no published lists to let anyone know about their existence.   Route 66 was one of the worst roads to travel, since there were hundreds of sundown towns along the way and services for black people even more difficult to find than for white travelers.   Even after the interstates were built in the 1950s, travel continued to be filled with uncertainty and danger, and while there were other black travel guides in circulation, "a blessing to the black community,"  it was the Green Book that not only stayed in print the longest but also had the longest reach and the widest readership.  It became a staple in glove compartments, allowing people to "travel without embarrassment," as the inside cover of the 1948 Green Book proclaimed.   While it couldn't protect travelers from racist cops, as the author notes, "it was still the best travel aid a black family could have." 



my photo, from the book

 The Great Migration of African-Americans lasted from 1915 to 1970, and for people fleeing horrific Jim Crow realities including lynchings (the author cites more than four thousand black people having been massacred by the KKK and "other white vigilante groups" between 1877 and 1968) or who were in search of better opportunites in the North (or in some cases westward),  the Green Book was not only a "perfect tool to facilitate" this mass move, but it "likely gave black Southerners the courage they needed to leave."  Getting into a car and leaving wasn't as simple as it sounds -- even if a person had a job allowing him/her to make regular car payments, a lot of car dealers wouldn't sell to African-Americans, and banks weren't too eager to loan them the money anyway.  In some cases a white person had to offer to guaranteee a loan by co-signing. And while in Jim Crow states, sometimes just passing a white man was on the highway was a dangerous move.

The dustjacket blurb also notes that this guide was "hailed as the 'bible of black travel,' "  but in reality, it was so much more -- as the author notes, it was also 
"a compelling marketing tool that supported black-owned businesses and celebrated black self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship."
 These establishments included restaurants, gas stations, vacation spots, nightclubs, tailors, beauty parlors, motels and tourist houses among many others.   Although some white-owned, integrated places allowed African-Americans, the majority listed in the Green Book were black-owned enterprises which were not only safe havens for travelers, but the money people spent there was a boon to and strengthened local economies.


my photo, p. 264 (1963-64 edition of Green Book)

Another major impact of the Green Book  is that it helped to shape and strengthen a sense of community among African-Americans,  which would become very important especially during the civil rights years.   In Birmingham, Alabama, for example, self-made, black millionaire A.G. Gaston built A.G. Gaston's Motel in 1954;  it was listed in the Green Book in 1956.   He had intended that it should be a "place where his community could feel safe to congregate, eat, and socialize."  Gaston was an important figure not only in Birmingham business and in his efforts to support African-Americans who needed help, but he was active in the Civil Rights movement.  His motel served as Martin Luther King Jr's headquarters where he had a "war room" to organize protesters and strategize for his campaigns.  The Green Book sites, the author states, were "on the front lines in the battle for equality."

Obviously this is just a very, very brief sketch of Overground Railroad. I'm not a reviewer, just a reader, and what Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. says about this book on the back-cover blurb sort of sums it all up:
"If 'making a way out of no way' is a theme that runs throughout African-American life, few things encapsulate that theme more powerfully that the Green Book. A symbol of Jim Crow America, it is also a stunning rebuke of it, born out of ingenuity and the relentless quest for freedom."
It is unforgettable, compelling and a book that is not only beyond relevant but also critical reading in our own times, one that should be on the shelves of every library everywhere including the one in your home.   It is worthy of winning any book award nomination that may come its way.

Brava, Candacy Taylor, just brava.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Library of the Lost: In Search of Forgotten Authors, by Roger Dobson

9781723710872
Tartarus Press, 2018
(originally published in hardcover 2015)
305 pp

paperback

The Library of the Lost is a tribute to Roger Dobson, a writer whose devotion to literature seems to have known no bounds. It is composed of twenty of  his essays that are all delightfully informative, covering a wide range of topics and people connected to literature of the past.

It is author Javier Marías who gets the first say about his friend in this volume, in his article written for El Pais after Dobson's death in 2013.  Entitled  "A Remarkable Man,"  Marías describes Dobson as being someone who puts his "energies into rescuing someone from oblivion who has been unjustly forgotten," and a "silent enthusiast" devoted to "something that no one else much cares about."   Mark Valentine says of Dobson in his Introduction (parts of which are also found in his earlier post after Dobson's death in  Wormwoodiana ) that he was
"an author, journalist, actor, and bookman who loved to explore the stranger margins of literature and its most outré characters," 
a man "devoted to literature;" who was the "leading Machen scholar of his time," and "extremely well-read."  Even if I had not read the introduction, I would have been able to guess immediately  that Dobson was an "extremely well-read" man  given the examples of his amazing knowledge shared over all twenty essays collected in  Library of the Lost.  

The book is filled with astute, articulate, clever and often humorous essays about a number of different literary figures, some of whom are familiar to most readers, including Montague Summers, "a Jekyll and Hyde in reverse," M.P Shiel, George Gissing, Dennis Wheatley, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and W.B. Yeats.  While he doesn't get his own chapter here, Aleister Crowley features quite a bit, for example in "W.B. Yeats and The Golden Dawn," and  in another essay about poet Althea Gyles, a "strange red-haired girl" who asked for and received advice on how not to become too "enmeshed" by him.  Less familiar subjects to me (and okay, positively unknown in a few cases)  are Brocard Sewell, Julian Maclaren-Ross, John Gawsworth, Wrenne Jarman and Jocelyn Brooke.  There are also essays in which the focus is not a specific author, but writers from the past still manage to be found within these as well. 

I haven't mentioned Arthur Machen, but he is, of course,  most prominent throughout Library of the Lost. As just one example of many I could offer,  there are a number of discussions about  Machen's characters, for instance,  Wilde's Dorian Gray as a possible inspiration for Lucian Taylor of Hill of Dreams, the literary ancestors of  The Great God Pan's Helen Vaughan, and how  Machen's own experiences and "lonely struggles in London" may reflect those of some of the people who inhabit his fictional worlds.   It's all fascinating stuff, great food for thought, and perhaps most importantly for me, filled with signposts to follow in future reading. 

 As the blurb notes,
"This collection will delight all connoisseurs of fantastic, supernatural and outré literature."
 I will add only that the book should come with a warning label for potential readers.    As soon as I had started reading, I grabbed pen and paper and started noting titles of various books and stories mentioned here that  I wanted to read.  When I'd finished Library of the Lost, the list numbered thirty-four, of which I only owned twelve.  I bought three more immediately, and then after a second read, I purchased another three.  I couldn't help myself; Dobson had convinced me that these are all works worth reading. I can't begin to say how very much I loved this collection, but the proof is really in the new books now in my home library and their shelf  designated as "Dobson to-reads" after finishing it.

So very, very highly recommended.