With authors I value, like Barbara Kingsolver, the wait for a new work can often be lengthy. My wait was amply rewarded. In Unsheltered–2018 HarperCollins–she had created parallel narratives that articulate across two centuries in the American experience. Her device is a house and property shared by the characters in different centuries. The 21st Century Wilma and 19th Century Thatcher are adults navigating giant shifts in social paradigms. For Wilma and her family it is the economic collapse of the middle class and the dissolution of the ideals her generation pursued. Climate change knocks ominously at her door. For Thatcher it a pre-Darwin American culture in a panic to hold onto Christian perspectives by rejecting rational observation of how the world works (akin to today’s denial of science).
Wilma’s multigenerational family reflects at once a 1) disenfranchised, racist white America (grandfather); 2) boomer parents (Wilma and Iano); 3) grown kids who pursued differing paths–Harvard financial education (Zeke), and post-apocalyptic youth (Tig). Add Baby Dusty, Wilma’s grandson whom she is mothering after the death of Zeke’s wife, and you have four generations, each navigating their own realities. The dialogue along the way explores the contemporary ocean of conflicting values and ideas of today’s American society with our economic, social, and environmental challenges.
Unsheltered is a nuanced conversation between Kingsolver, her characters, and the reader that is slow at times but never boring and long enough to examine previous and contemporary times for understanding the confabulations of collective memory–an existential wail of ‘Who are we?’
Twenty-something Tig exclaims to her mother, “The guys in charge of everything right now are so old. They really are, Mom. Older than you. They figured out the meaning of life in, I guess, the nineteen fifties and sixties. When it looked like there would always be plenty of everything. And they’re still applying that to now. It’s just so ridiculous.”
For individuals like me, awash in Trump-a-Con, Unsheltered is a beacon. Kinsolver’s Afterward explains her own journey to understand “the times”, explaining to readers how she wrote a novel about real historical figures and set the novel in South Jersey in a small town, Vineland. Along the way, she traveled many miles, including London where walked in the footsteps of Charles Darwin.
This book is a needed contribution to understanding our time as one when the “world as we know it” appears to be ending. It is ultimately a great story that takes us into the author’s creative mind. I am so grateful to Kingsolver!
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist who explains her knowledge of an indigenous worldview about plants with that of the western worldview. In that process, Kimmerer embeds whole Earth teaching along with botanical science. Here in this beautiful essay, ” Corn tastes better on the honor system” published in Emergence Magazine, is one of the author’s best teaching contrasting indigenous ways of knowing with western perspectives about the Earth. At this ragged time in American history, return to sanity. Listen.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. She lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.
Wangari Maathai grew up in her homeland in Kenya, living close to the earth and learning traditional Kikuyu values and practices. Her memoir, Unbound, describes her daily activities as a child, her mother’s teachings, and how her people regarded the streams and forests in a land where the balance of nature is delicate, not to be abused without serious consequences for its inhabitants.
In Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, Maathai’s wisdom is distilled onto each page, every sentence the next drop in the flow. Wangari describes herself as working practically to solve problems she learned about in discussions with communities and among women’s groups. Their need for clean water, and for access to earn a living, were her daily concerns. Eventually, Wangari and the women she served established the Greenbelt Movement that planted over 30 million trees in Kenya.
In Replenishing, Wangari’s concerns about the destruction of the environment in Kenya are examined in light of the world’s sacred traditions. Always a practical perspective, her observations and reflections give readers much to consider often through humor. For example she writes that God in his wisdom created Adam on Friday. If he’d created him on Monday he’d have perished for lack of food!
Wangari Maathai’s clarity of thought is invaluable in this age where massive destruction of oceans, rivers, wildlands, and forests have imperiled life the world over. She and the women of Kenya remind us of the earth-shaking power of people to replenish the earth, if we choose to do so.
The great historian and writer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, has gifted students of American history with a rare treasure. LeadershipIn Turbulent Times, is a masterwork by one of America’s preeminent presidential historians. Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson are examined through three lenses: 1) Ambition and Recognition of Leadership; 2) Adversity and Growth; 3) The Leader and the Times: How they Led
Goodwin has written biographies of each President, and she worked in Lyndon B. Johnson’s Administration as a student fellow and later helped him organize his presidential library and archives which are extensive.
I highly recommend this book for its relevance to present turbulent times. How can we recognize a great leader? What do they share in common? How do their leadership qualities emerge over a lifetime, and how do they use their particular talents to lead the largest democracy on Earth?
Goodwin is a great storyteller. The intimate portraits she paints for us are gritty, truthful, and surprising. In the last section on Visionary Leadership Goodwin becomes a classroom professor subheading points she wants to make clear such as 1) Make a dramatic start; 2) Lead with your strengths; 3) Simplify the agenda — and so on. One critic felt this was too elementary. But I like to think that Goodwin, out of her concern for the state of leadership in Washington was giving us a primer on how to identify a true leader. And for younger men and women who are coming up in the political ranks in their counties and states, she may also be showing them how the greats managed to bring our country together in times of very dangerous challenges such as the Civil War, the Depression, WWII, Civil Rights and Vietnam.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone is a YA novel for our time.
It deals with injustice and racial profiling but in the most personal manner. Stone used newspaper articles, and stories from real teens who have faced similar injustices to develop her story. Stone writes a nuanced plot and characters as real as the people around you. Everyone is welcome in Justyce’s story because diverse perspectives are represented in the characters, their thoughts and responses to events in the story.
This is a national bestseller. Free copies were distributed by the Warren County, KY library in my home town of Bowling Green, KY. Nic Stone will be here in October and I cannot wait to meet her.
The novel is a short book (less than 200 pages) but it moves powerfully along to an ending that made me weep with joy, sorrow, and HOPE!
It is my wish for this coming year that Americans will read it because it shows a way forward in addressing injustice in our law enforcement as well as in society in general–what we must finally deal with to complete the Long Road to Freedom.
Some books are necessary. This is one of them. A brilliant achievement.
Jack London is one of my favorite American writers.
“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor,
every atom of me in magnificent glow,
than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.” ~ Jack London (1876 – 1916)
Amazon has a two-part documentary of London’s life and work that is worth watching for insight into the personal and historical influences that shaped London’s development and ultimately, his contributions to literature. It is also a great teaching film for new writers.
Kudos to Jodi Picoult for taking on America’s most entrenched injustice. and helping readers discover in themselves how he or she may perpetuate racial injustice. Small Great Things is sheer bravery by a white American writer.
This novel bravely goes where few white writers would venture without the risk of their white privilege bleeding through the narrative, or of committing cultural appropriation. Jodi tells us readers that is exactly why the original idea and partially written manuscript were put aside for more than a decade.
Before Picoult decides to take up the gauntlet, she joins a white privilege workshop to delve into her own prejudices, she gathers to herself men and women from the black community who speak the hard truth to her and help her understand her role in perpetuating injustice. She interviews reformed white supremacists. Picoult dives deep to show how racial injustice is sustained by a thousand small cuts a day, carried out by whites who are often clueless to their own complicity.
Small Great Things explores how racial privilege, even more than outright discrimination, pervades white consciousness. A person may think “I’m color blind,” or “race makes no difference to me”. However, Picoult’s book reminds us it is easy to think that when you are a beneficiary of the culture’s every advantage.
Yet, Picoult also shows how “minorities” can play into perpetuating the injustice by remaining silent to hold on to tenuous advantages they may have and that are working to help them accomplish goals like owning a home and sending their child to college. The main character, Ruth Jefferson, demonstrates how that works.
Picoult shows in the character of Kennedy, Ruth’s public defender when Ruth, a respected labor and delivery nurse, is accused of killing the baby of a white supremacist couple. Prior to their son’s death, they demanded that Ruth, an African-American, be forbidden to touch their child (Davis). Ruth is removed from the family’s service after Davis is born. She is mystified. As one of the most capable nurses, she can’t imagine why they do not want her to help care for their son. Then she observes the tattoos on the father’s arm and head, and she realizes he is a white supremacist. As the story advances, Baby Davis is discovered to have an inherited disorder that contributes to his death.
By following the developing relationship between Ruth and Kennedy, Picoult takes readers with her on the discovery of white privilege, peeling it back layer by layer until finally Kennedy is seeing it in herself. We also follow Ruth’s discovery that she has blinded herself to racial assumptions that arise regularly in her peers. Ruth’s determination to discuss the role of racial hatred in her case — a strategy strongly opposed by Kennedy — is a result of finally understanding her complicity in the persistence of racial discrimination by remaining silent.
The story of Turk Bauer and his wife Brittany, both white supremacists, brings to light the complexity of racial hatred. We learn the circumstances that led to Turk’s induction into the Aryan Nation. We go to events where racial hatred is cultivated, taught to youngsters, and how it is organized across the nation. Inside Turk’s head, we see how he is influenced by fear and anger in his particular life circumstances. We witness Turk’s the awful suffering from the loss of his child. We see his humanity even when his beliefs and actions are despicable to us. Jodi is showing that racial relationships in America are complex and nuanced.
Critics have reviewed the novel’s sometimes cardboard stereotypes and slow action, but really, Picoult took on a monumental task as she worked through her own racial biases and white privilege, inviting her fans to do the same within themselves. This is how hard it is. Picoult is a skilled writer. We can give her a little slack if at times the characters may lack realism or the plot slows here and there. She took on America’s deepest wound, most entrenched injustice, and one that is still festering in the hearts of us all. We must get at it in ourselves until we can live a free nation. Picoult offers us her experience as one way we might get there.
Watch Frontline: Documenting Hate which aired on August 10. It is a documentary of the white supremacists at Charlottesville, VA uprising over confederate monuments. It was so much more, of course. This ProPublica investigation helps us learn about how a permissive environment ushered hate groups into the American mainstream.
What the Eyes Don’t See is a book written by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha about the Flint, Michigan water crisis. As a pediatrician and Community Health Residency Director at Hurley Center in Flint. Dr. Mona (as her tiny patients refer to her) learned from a high school friend, an environmental scientist, that she should be concerned about lead in the water in Flint. She was surprised. The Flint authorities told everyone the water was fine to drink. Like most of us, she expected the people “in charge” to protect the public. Isn’t that what government is for? But, Dr. Mona’s friend said no — it is not safe. That began an 8-month odyssey that grew from a conversation between two friends to a consortium of doctors, scientists, activists, and parents who exposed the cover up and righted a huge wrong. Dr. Mona knew all too well what lead exposure does to developing children.
I highly recommend this book for its depth, its fluid story development, and its educational value for every adult in the U.S. and for the sake of every child. I read it over two days, hardly able to put it down. See Dr. Mona on the web.
Exposure to high lead levels as infants and children can cause irreversible damage to their brains and other organs. Gray matter in the brain is eroded so that the child has problems with attention and impulse control; it affects white matter in nerves that carry signals in the brain; it is suspected of having epigenetic effects – changing a child’s DNA which means it can be passed to future generations. People exposed to lead as children show higher rates of crime and addiction as teens and adults. Lead in the body can erode eyesight and affect other organs.
Dr. Mona encapsulates the story in 1) the political policy — austerity; 2) the socioeconomic history of the city and those most affected by the lead poisoning — an environmental injustice; 3) the U.S. practice of requiring the victim to prove harmfirst rather than using the Precautionary Principle: when danger is suspected, move with caution, using science to understand the risk.
In 2014, due to Flint’s bankruptcy, the state assigned an emergency manager who alone made the decision to switch the city’s water supply from the more expensive fresh water of the Great Lakes to river water. The Great Lakes water was treated with a corrosion control to prevent leaching of chemicals like lead into the drinking water. The new manager decided to not use corrosion-control treatment of the river water as a way to save money–his primary mandate.
Dr. Mona points out that the city lost democracy with the assignment of an emergency manager appointed by the state. The city was in free-fall economically not by the fault of any of the families and small businesses that were struggling economically in Flint. The wealthy either moved out, or changed the housing and voting districts to wall themselves off from the poorer workers and neighborhoods. The people were essentially punished for being poor. Extreme austerity was what they got, a short-sighted, unjust policy.
When Dr. Mona and her team began to contact authorities to alert them and request data, they were met by silence or by bureaucratic barriers. They had to “prove” the harm done to children before the authorities would agree there was a problem. To protect industry, the U.S. requires harm to be proved first unlike all other nations in the world. Instead, Dr. Mona points to the Precautionary Principle.
Everyone in America knows that lead is dangerous, and officials in government know that corrosion-control in municipal water quality prevents leaching of lead. So why should she need to prove anything. Shouldn’t the authorities move with caution first to protect the possible harming of children? Again, in policy, money came before the kids.
Dr. Mona worked with data experts, scientists, policy makers, and many others to pull data, analyze it with rigorous methods to be sure the increase in lead that they were seeing was true. It was far worse than they expected. Thousands of children in the prime months and years of their development were impacted. But, just as you can’t see lead in the water, you won’t see the changes in the children for months or even years. So, one has to be cautious, right?
This book is something more. It is the story of an immigrant family who fled a brutal dictator (Saddam Hussein) to live in the U.S. Mona and her brother were natural born Americans but her parents brought the traditions of their country and lives to their home in America. I was fascinated to learn more about the history of Iraq. Instead of the war-torn, fearful images I have only seen through U.S. media during the Iraq war, I learned about the Iraq Republic before the revolution that installed Saddam. Women had similar freedoms to American women today. It’s hard to imagine that such a complete transformation of the country has happened in such a short period of time and a warning to our country to watch for destabilizing influences on our democracy. Mona describes her parents and grandparents, the food, language, and story traditions from Iraq that are lovely and that I related to my own familial traditions. Her family members, each in their own way, emulated qualities of citizenship and justice that Mona clearly inherited.
Dr. Mona opened the world a little more to me. This perspective of the immigrant is vital to understanding other nations and our role in the world. I kept thinking as I was reading, “Thank God we let her family immigrate to America. Look what she and her family have contributed to the welfare of our country!”
Landing in the America that made it possible for Dr. Mona to be a doctor, she began to see that there were “two Americas” – the one that worked for her and her brother, and the one that doesn’t work for most of the residents of Flint. The families most affected by the poisoned water were the same ones who could not pay for bottled or filtered water. Children impacted by the poisoned water were already dealing with major stressors such as malnutrition, neglect or abuse–all the impacts of poverty. Dr. Mona explains what we know about the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences, of A.C.E’s which cause such ailments as chronic asthma. Dr. Mona teaches the reader about Community Medicine that looks not just at physical health but also zip code–the socio-economic correlates of health. The book is annotated and provides references for professionals and parents in the back of the book. It contains an excellent summary of Flint’s history from the heyday of GM’s dominance to the disenfranchised neighborhoods of today. This gives readers a setting in which to understand how and why the story unfolded as it did.
Dr. Mona works in a public hospital so she sees and cares for the poorest residents. Her amazing story is about the indignation of one doctor who would not stop until she exposed the lead levels of kids she saw at Hurley. She tells the story of the coalition of friends, fellow professionals, legislators, and parents who managed in only 8-months to expose the truth. Ultimately, the governor mandated the switch back to fresh, Great Lakes, corrosion-treated water. It was a victory but it is also powerful implication of America’s environmental injustices. And it is an ongoing effort to stay with all the kids affected to make their futures as bright as possible.
Direction for Communities Across the Country: As Dr. Mona travels around the country to introduce the book, she is teaching all of us about community resilience and how coming together we can provide buffers to poverty and neglect that will help stabilize children, and how we can all work together to provide kids in low-income neighborhoods with books, with mentors., with education, and a social fabric that helps each child and parent be more resilient to stressors.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is just one child of immigrant parents who has become an amazing advocate for American children who is also showing our nation where we must re-examine our policies at least as they affect the very young.
Dr. Mona is exposing much more than lead in the water. She is showing us a direction to live up to our creed that all people are equal and deserving of equal rights and protections under the law. Her book is a call for government to live up to its mandates and for citizens to make sure they do. Ultimately, Dr. Mona explains that she is a believer in the role of good government as opposed to extreme policies of austerity which are often short-sighted and basically unfair. I agree.
Mark J. Hainds records his experiences on a 1,000 mile walk along the Texas – Mexico Border in a new travelogue: Border Walk.
Mark’s easygoing narrative is funny, educational, and relevant given current border issues in the U.S. and Mexico. Not only did he come through unscathed by border violence, but Mark illustrates the true nature of this culturally diverse region as quiet, rural and friendly. Even the big border towns of El Paso, Laredo, and Brownsville–maligned by tweeters and journalists as dangerous hell-holes–are shown to be relatively benign and mostly friendly. Mark gives statistics about the lower rates of crime in all three cities compared with past decades. While he does observe border-crossers, some with backpacks purportedly filled with illegal drugs, it is just a small aspect of the life of families, border patrol officers, and small business-owners along this infamous border.
Mark’s exceptional observations emanate from his knowledge of rural areas of America. He grew up on a small farm in Alabama the state where he resides with his wife and children, and where he served as a Research Associate at Auburn University and Research Coordinator of The Long Leaf Alliance. Mark is a forester, hunter, farmer and explorer.
The book is filled with stories of weird events and strange sights such as the business in the middle of nowhere that sells Prada shoes and bags. However, the merchandise if filled with tarantulas! It’s a spoof manufactured by some locals with a strange sense of humor who Mark later meets.
Mark notices the condition of the land and wildlife and shares his knowledge with us along the way. We are introduced to the ecology of the landscapes and its geology as he advances step by step over its contours. Usually walking about 20-25 miles a day, we learn about the daily toll that takes on feet, joints, and mental stamina. His support crew, the Compadres, are friends from around the country, some are naturalists, others outdoorsmen. When he is at his last ounce of energy– hot, tired and aching–they show up with a cold beer. Man, what a sight for sore eyes!
The Compadres come in waves to meet up with Mark, drive him to a hotel, hot shower and deadman’s sleep. These intrepid friends scout out the roads and trails, provided sustenance, and generally serve as a back-up crew. There are a lot of notable meals and merry-making along the way–much of it provided free by community people who are thrilled about Mark’s long walk and his interest in knowing the real communities and people who make up the U.S. – Mexico border region. After a while the Border Patrol and locals have already heard about the man walking the border, and they are ready with information, food, and offers to put him up for the night. The outpouring of friendliness is recorded in spades throughout the book. It makes you feel so good about the border people on both sides.
Why the differing attitudes on safety and life along the border? From my limited experience in the border cities, where the vast majority of the population resides, reality did not match up with perceptions held by the rest of the country. The statistics simply didn’t support the perceived threat. from Border Walk, p. 238
Mark shares data from an FBI report that lists four cities with the lowest crime rates in 2010: Phoenix, San Diego, El Paso, and Austin — all four border states! Mark does point out that people living along active smuggling corridors perceive crime to be very high. But these are far and few between the vast stretches of land that comprise most of the border region. He laughs at the thought of a border wall as he struggles to climb the peaks and plumb the valleys of remote regions where there are no viable roads needed to bring in materials to construct such a monstrosity.
Like the border areas, Mark’s book is quietly profound. In its readable pages, a general impression dawns slowly in the reader’s awareness: the border if NOT what we think it is. It’s a truly unique part of both countries, and families living along it go back and forth on a weekly basis sharing resources and appreciating each country’s food, language, and ways of life. A huge business exchange takes place all along the border, and its mostly not drugs.
Mark’s next book will continue the saga as he walks from the Texas to California border regions. On that segment I was privileged to be part of Mark’s support team in Southern Arizona along with my friend Tom. See Mark’s Facebook Page.