Book Review: The Transplanted

Book Review: The Transplanted by John Bodnar

This volume, written in the 1980s, is a survey of patterns of immigration into urban areas of the United States between 1830-1930 (approximately.)    It covers those who came to stay, those who just came to get a nest egg to improve life in their home country, and those who intended to go back but just never got around to it.  Mr. Bodnar was and still is a professor of history at Indiana University.

The Transplanted

The general theme of this book seems to be “it’s complicated.”  The immigrant experience was not uniform, with their reactions and outcomes varying considerably depending on their initial motivations for emigration, the areas they came from, their initial social class and starting capital, and what part of America they ended up in.  Trying to fit the immigrants into a single narrative that fits a particular philosophy doesn’t really work, according to Professor Bodnar.

It’s pretty dry stuff, starting with a chapter on the countries immigrants came from and focusing on when various regions had their largest numbers go.  This isn’t a book for the casual reader.

The most interesting chapter for me was on religion and how their faiths both influenced how immigrants adapted to American life, and were forced to adapt themselves.  Often there were clashes between those who felt they were (ethnicity) first, (religion) second, and those (especially religious leaders) who felt the reverse.  One example was Slovak immigrants who were suspicious of their priests and ministers who preached in favor of Hungarian rule of the homeland.  (It was later confirmed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire did indeed pay off religious leaders to spout pro-Hungarian propaganda in the U.S.)

Another conflict that often came up was between the urge to embrace Americanization and blend into their new society, and the fear of losing the unique cultural elements of their homeland or religious beliefs.  This often led to a preference for parochial or ethnicity-based schools rather than putting children into the public school system.

There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index, as well as a handful of black-and-white pictures.

Again, this isn’t a book for the casual reader, but is best suited for college students and up who are doing serious research on the subject of immigration.  For most people, I’d recommend one of the many fine memoirs of immigrant families available at your local library.

Book Review: Famous Nathan

Book Review: Famous Nathan by Lloyd Handwerker and Gil Reavill

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or given.

Famous Nathan

Nathan’s Famous was the number one hot dog stand in the world for several decades, and synonymous with the Coney Island experience.  It was the creation of Nathan (originally Nachum) Handwerker, an immigrant who worked his way up from grinding poverty to being a successful businessman.  This book is primarily his story, told by his grandson.

According to the book, Nathan was born in a Jewish shtetl in Galicia (now part of Poland) in 1892.  At the time, the region was occupied by Austria, and was proverbial for its inhabitants’ poverty.  His father Jacob was a shoemaker who was usually unemployed and his mother sold vegetables as a sideline whenever the chance came up.  Nathan grew up constantly hungry and early on decided he wanted to be in the restaurant business.  Over time, his hard work and good business sense got him enough money to buy passage to America in 1912.

To make it in business, you need a strong work ethic, canny business sense…and a walloping dose of good luck.  Nathan had all three, and by 1916 had learned enough English and accumulated enough savings to open his own “grab joint” selling frankfurters and lemonade from a tiny storefront on Coney Island.  His initial partner backed out when initial sales weren’t good, but Nathan found a good price point and soon became able to stay open all year, expanding the store and his menu bit by bit.

After a year or so, the initially nameless joint became “Nathan’s”, and then “Nathan’s Famous” as business boomed.  Nathan used a business philosophy of fast service, a limited menu and consistent high quality to grow his enterprise.  (This was later independently discovered by the McDonalds brothers, though the highness of quality is debatable.)

A big believer in family, Nathan brought over almost all of his clan from Europe as well as marrying and having children of his own.  He didn’t let nepotism stand in the way of good business practice, though, once firing his older brother the same day he hired him for failure to follow procedure.  He was a very hands-on manager, and ran a tight ship; his contentious personality meant that he often fought with his top workers, but it also bred loyalty.  He integrated his staff very early on and was generous with benefits, but was firmly against unions.

Nathan’s Famous was huge, and the book describes its interactions with American history.  But by the time Nathan’s sons Sol and Murray moved into management positions under him, times were changing.  The brothers had clashing ideas about where the store and its brand should be going, and did not work together well.  Coney Island was losing its place as a tourist attraction, helped along by a city planner who wanted to gentrify the area.  (Unfortunately, his plans had the opposite effect, crashing the local economy and increasing crime.)  And chain fast food places became the standard.

The original Nathan’s Famous has never closed, but is no longer in family hands, and in the modern day, it’s more famous as a hot dog brand than as a destination.

Most of the material about Nathan’s early life is derived from a single interview done with him by another of his grandsons, so should be taken with a grain of salt.  The book also talks about some Nathan’s Famous legends and whether they are based on truth or the result of a public relations campaign.

There’s quite a bit of time spent on the logistics and mechanics of running a grab joint in the early part of the Twentieth Century, which will be useful to people who have always wondered about that sort of thing.  There’s also family drama, as well as details about some of the long-time employees.

To be honest, the book never really grabbed me, but I think it will be of great interest to hot dog aficionados and those who are nostalgic for the Nathan’s Famous of yore.  Each chapter has a black and white photo heading.  Also, there are end notes (functional but lackluster) and a bibliography for further reading.

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Introduction by Lizzy Attree

The Caine Prize is awarded to a short story written by an African author (which primarily means one born in Africa–all the authors in this volume are from Sub-Saharan Africa), published in English in the last five years and submitted for consideration.  This volume contains the five stories that were shortlisted for the prize in 2013, plus twelve more written at a workshop sponsored by the Caine Prize.

A Memory This Size

The collection leads off with the 2013 winner, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin.  A group of Nigerian immigrants attend a tent revival in Texas.  A great faith healer is scheduled to appear, but will there be a miracle tonight, and what form will it take?  I found this to be rather a blah story, but I am not one of the judges for the contest and don’t know what criteria they based the decision on.  Nigerians dominate this volume, with four of the five shortlisted stories and several of the workshop ones as well.

Three of the five shortlisted stories have a heavy Africa-America connection, to the point that Chinelo Okparanta’s story is actually titled “America.”  A schoolteacher who wishes to join her lover there uses the Gulf oil spill as a wedge to try to convince the immigration people to give her a green card.   There’s an interesting ending in which the protagonist remembers hearing a folktale similar to ‘Jack the Giant-Killer” except that it stops short of the “ever after” with no explanation of what happens past a certain point.

The title story, “A Memory This Size” by Elnathan John concerns a man mourning for his brother, who died years ago, and yet he cannot let go.

There are common themes in these stories, most of which are “slice of life” tales:  government corruption, marital infidelity and environmental destruction.

There are a couple of stories that move into the “magical realism” camp (that is, fantasy, but not called that so critics can treat it as actual literature.)  The better one is “Howl” by Rotimi Babatunde, about a dog named Jack who may or may not have the extraordinary powers the villagers think, but is certainly not a normal dog.  “Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile” by Stanley Onjezani Kenani, however, has the best title in this volume.  That story is about a fishing village threatened by oil developers, and the sacrifice one man makes to save their way of life.

I also enjoyed “Stuck” by Davina Kawuma, told in a series of emails by a young woman who is tempted to have an affair.  One final email changes everything.

My least favorite story was “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist.  This tale of a man who returns to Sierra Leone after many years in America, thinking he will be a big man thanks to his money, was too predictable and made me cringe rather than care.

That said, I am glad I took the chance to read this book and learn what some African writers are doing.  There are thirteen volumes of Caine Prize stories published; check your inter-library loan system for any one of them.

I should also mention that there is some disturbing subject matter, and would best suited for college age and up.

Comic Book Review: Poseurs

Comic Book Review: Poseurs written by Deborah Vankin, art by Rick Mays

Jenna Berry is a Jewish-Cherokee teen living in a downmarket part of Los Angeles.  Her mother is a hard-drinking legal secretary who has been dating a string of pretty boys, and they’re always on the verge of poverty.  When Mom’s shoplifting costs Jenna her part-time job, Jenna needs a new way to make money so she can pursue her avocation of photography.

Poseurs

As it happens, Jenna’s got a look that makes her a good fit for a job as a party guest for rent, making Los Angeles events appear even more prestigious than they already are.  Jenna hasn’t quite mastered socialization, but she does make two new friends.  Pouri is a “parachute kid” from Taiwan who was sent to the United States for an education, but her guardian has bailed, and she prefers partying to studying.  Mac is a whitebread kid from suburbia with a habit of trying to create new slang; he’s a busboy, so works the same parties Jenna does, but at a lower payrate.

Parties are fun, but Pouri’s made some poor life choices, and now she’s getting threatening texts.  Also, it’s crunch time–she needs to pass her SATs or her parents will force her to come home to Taiwan for an arranged marriage.  Pouri comes up with a wacky plan, and then something goes drastically wrong.  Can Jenna save the day?

Deborah Vankin is a Los Angeles Times writer covering the culture beat, so presumably well-versed in the party scene.  This is her first young adult graphic novel (I see that it may also have been published under the title Insta-Life.)  Rick Mays is an experienced comic book artist, working in black and white here.

The theme of the story, as indicated by the title, is that the characters are pretending to be people they’re not, or projecting an image.  Even Mac is trying to seem more cool by spouting nonsensical slang.  Only when the characters start being more honest with themselves and each other does the plot resolve.

If anything, the depiction of the party scene seems a little sanitized.  Pouri drinks, but Jenna doesn’t, and there’s no other drugs, and no sex.  Presumably this is to stay in a “Teen” rating.  Senior high students should be okay, but parents of younger readers may want to talk to their kids about some of the behavior modeled by the protagonists.

This is a good first effort by Ms. Vankin, but the characterization is a bit thin, and there’s a bit too much fourth wall breakage, so future works by her should be better.  The art works very well with the subject matter.

 

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate edited by John Gaterud

Yes, this is yet another literary magazine; I picked up a bunch inexpensively at the book fair.  This one seems to take its title from Jack Kerouac’s writing; this first issue was published in 2007.

Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

The index is unusual for this kind of magazine.  Rather than a linear index, or arranged by subject or type of literature, it’s by author.  It also doesn’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction–while some pieces sound more fictional than others, you will need to make up your own mind.

Insert my usual comments about modern poetry here.  The most interesting ones for me are “Postcards to Mike” by Ed McManis, a set of verses describing a school trip to Europe, the small disasters and odd moments of traveling with students.

A couple of the pieces are very much written in 2006, and feel dated now with their jabs at the Bush administration.  Deserved jabs, but still.  “Letter from Iceland” by Bill Holm and “Letter from London” by Donna R. Casella are both most interesting as time capsules, I think.

Best of the prose pieces from my point of view was “O Mary, Where Art Thou?” by Suzanne Lillian Bunkers.  It’s an examination of the various appearances of Mary, mother of Jesus, with an emphasis on the sites that the author has personally visited.  One of the qualifications for authenticating a visit by Mary, it turns out, is conformity with Catholic doctrine.  If your vision of Mary has her advocating ordination of women, you’re out of luck officially.

Overall, the theme is of road trips and journeys.  Many of the pieces are sad or bittersweet; others are nostalgic.  I do not know if any further volumes were published by Blueroad Press.

As with other literary magazines I’ve reviewed, it seems decent if this kind of literature is your thing.

Book Review: The Land of Dreams

Book Review: The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

Lance Hansen has not dreamed in seven years.   A divorced Forest Service police officer on the North Shore of Lake Superior, most of his days are spent chasing illegal fishing and people camping in the wrong places.  He thinks that the latter will be his main problem one June day, but when he investigates the crime scene, one camper is covered in blood, and the other horribly murdered.

The Land of Dreams

This is the first book in Norwegian crime writer Vidar Sundstøl’s “Minnesota Trilogy”, translated by Tiina Nunnally.   I should warn you right away that this is a true trilogy, and most of the mysteries introduced in this volume are not fully resolved in it.

Lance is a history buff, expert in the Cook County area’s people and events–he realizes this is the first murder within living memory in the area, and this allows the author to use the background material he gathered while himself living on the North Shore.   During a check of his archives, Lance realizes that a disappearance a century ago might be connected to an  old family story he had not realized must have taken place at the same time.

The current murder investigation is out of Lance Hansen’s hands, however.  Since it took place on federal land, the FBI has been called in, as well as a guest detective from Norway, Eirik Nyland.  The investigators soon learn that the Norwegian tourists were lovers, but is their homosexuality a motive for murder, or just a complication to the investigation?  (This book was written before Minnesota legalized gay marriage.)

While many details of life on the North Shore ring true, and the translation works well (absent one or two word choices I would have done differently), it is really obvious that the book was written for a Scandinavian audience, as there’s a lengthy passage dedicated to explaining just where Lake Superior actually is.

The Norwegian immigrant experience and Ojibwe/Chippewa /Ashinabe lore are woven into the story’s fabric, important to Lance’s storyline if nothing else.

This book has a leisurely pace, and more impatient readers may want to give it a miss as it ambles from scene to scene and the characters spend a lot of time looking at Lake Superior and thinking.  There may be some supernatural events, or Lance may simply be hallucinating–that’s one of the mysteries that is not resolved here.

The ending is disturbing to me in a way few books are, and I am very interested in finding out what happens.

Recommended to fans of Nordic crime stories, and residents of Minnesota.

Book Review: Seeds for Change

Book Review: Seeds for Change by Marly Cornell

This is a biography of Surinder “Suri” and Edda (nee Jeglinsky) Sehgal, the founders of the Sehgal Foundation.  That foundation helps rural villages in India achieve clean water, improved agriculture, better education and more honest government, as well as funding conservation and ecological efforts around the world.

Seeds for Change

Both of them were refugees as children, Suri when his family wound up on the wrong side of the border during the partition of Pakistan and India, and Edda when her home in Silesia was about to be overrun by the Soviet Army during the end of World War Two (and then was attached to Poland in the post-war process.)

Suri grew up to become a crop scientist, specializing in hybrid corn, and came to America to pursue his graduate studies.  Edda was invited to the U.S. to serve as the au pair for the Henry Kissinger family.  They met and fell in love.  Suri got a job with Pioneer, creating their first international research station in Jamaica, and the couple got married.

They settled down in Iowa and raised a family, and with a combination of hard work, diplomacy and good management  skills, Suri rose to eventually become the president of Pioneer’s overseas operations.  Unfortunately, there was a management change at the company, and the new CEO felt uncomfortable with the decentralized nature of Pioneer at the time.

According to this book the new management of Pioneer fired Suri and attempted to frame him for stealing trade secrets, as well as gutting a joint venture in India that Mr. Sehgal had an independent interest in.   (A book from the perspective of the Pioneer management  might tell the story differently.)  The ensuing lawsuits were settled in Suri’s favor, and the independent company he rebuilt was successful enough to create the Foundation.

There’s a lot to like about this book.  Suri and Edda’s life experiences are interesting and shed light on areas not often brought to the attention of most Americans.   Edda is very much depicted as Suri’s partner who he could not have succeeded without.    If the text sometimes seems overly flattering, this is understandable due to it being written specifically to promote the Sehgal Foundation.

I found  the writing style a little flat.  A discussion of the children’s part-time jobs is given the same tonal feel as Suri’s trek  across India as a shoeless refugee  to find a relative whose location he only knows by a general region, which could use a bit more emotional weight.

There are genealogical charts at the beginning of the book (there are a lot of relatives that come in and out of the story) and a color photograph section in the middle.  Citations are done in footnotes, and there is no index.

Proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Sehgal Foundation, so that might influence your decision whether or not to purchase.

I would especially recommend this books to readers with an interest in immigrant stories.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book by the author for the purpose of undertaking this review.  No other compensation was involved or requested.

Book Review: Empire of Sin

Book Review: Empire of Sin by Gary Krist

A criminal called “the Axman” opens this story, and after a thirty-year flashback through New Orleans history, wraps it up as well.  No one is sure who the Axman actually was, how many of the crimes attributed to him he actually did, or his final fate.  Rather more is known of many of the Crescent City’s other colorful characters between 1890 and 1920 or so.  The reformers tried to make prostitution and other vices confined to a small neighborhood sardonically named “Storyville.”  This created one of the most notorious red-light districts in American history.

Empire of Sin

Gary Krist, who also wrote City of Scoundrels, which I reviewed earlier, covers rather more ground in this volume, expanding from 12 days to three decades of history.  In addition to the brothels and saloons of Storyville, presided over by the genial vice lord Tom Anderson, the history also looks at the alleged Mafia/Black Hand involvement among Italian immigrants, the infancy of jazz music and the coming of Jim Crow.

The high-minded citizens who wanted to reform New Orleans and make it a modern city unfortunately wanted to make it like other Southern cities of the time.  So in addition to segregating out sin and temptation, they wanted to segregate out people of color as well.  New Orleans’ complicated social scene, including many Creoles of color, was simplified (legally at least) into black and white, the first of which was to be suppressed and oppressed.  This resulted in Storyville being one of the few places where people of different races could meet and interact as something like equals.

Meanwhile, the Italian immigrant population had persistent problems with crime;  how organized it was is up for interpretation.   Paranoia and the assassination of the police chief resulted in the Parish Prison lynching of eleven men.   It didn’t help when some of the alleged Mafia people decided to try to muscle in on Storyville.

Quite some space is devoted to the early musicians who created what would become jazz,   “Buddy” Bolden, considered by many to be the first, had a tragically short career due to a sudden onset of mental illness.  But by that time, he had inspired many others, with Storyville providing work opportunities for them in dives and brothels.

While reform movements constantly assailed the vice district, what dealt the crippling blow to Storyville was World War One.  With a major military encampment near New Orleans, and the War Department insistent on keeping their soldiers moral and fit for duty, they imposed restrictions that made it difficult at best to operate.  After the war, Prohibition struck, making it illegal to serve alcohol, the lifeblood of many demimonde establishments.

While crime and vice never actually went away, they did have to go underground, leaving New Orleans a much duller place.  The “better class” people disdained jazz, so the city lost many of its best musicians to other cities, particularly up North.  Eventually, economic doldrums convinced the New Orleans tourist boards to play up its seedy and jazzy past, though somewhat whitewashed.

There’s small pictures at the beginning of each chapter, a bibliography, end note and index.  The paperback edition also has a short interview with the author, a suggested playlist for New Orleans music, and a list of fictional treatments of the Crescent City.

I found this book to be more…diffuse…than Mr. Krist’s previous one–thirty years is a lot of territory to cover.  The focus on the Storyville district means that a lot of other matters get only a glancing view at best.   Still, if you’re curious about New Orleans history, this is a good place to start, well-researched and full of lurid bits.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review. No other compensation was involved.

Comic Strip Review: The Complete Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten: The Junior Commandos

Comic Strip Review: The Complete Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten: The Junior Commandos by Harold Gray

Little Orphan Annie was one of the all-time great comic strips, debuting in 1924.  The story centered on a plucky orphan girl with curly red hair (which was considered unattractive at the time) and her attempts to get by in a cruel world with the aid of her dog Sandy.  Early on, she was taken “on trial” by the unpleasant Mrs. Warbucks, whose husband Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks took an immediate shine to Annie.

Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten

The strip’s formula depended heavily on finding ways to separate Annie from “Daddy” for long periods, or giving him financial troubles so they could go on the road together.  The device of having one of them believe the other was dead was used repeatedly for melodrama.  Mrs. Warbucks eventually relented and made friends with Annie, only to permanently die shortly thereafter.  (There was a second Mrs. Warbucks who was also hostile to Annie, and who Daddy may have murdered offscreen.)

Eventually, the strips added Daddy Warbucks’ exotic servants Punjab (a giant of a fellow with mystic abilities) and the Asp (a East Asian with a mysterious past and no given name.)  Harold Gray had strong conservative views, which often featured in the strips, both as story themes and character dialogue.  He was a big believer in hard work and honesty as ways to get ahead, and sometimes showed huge blind spots about the flaws of capitalism.

This volume covers stories from 1941-1943, and is strongly influenced by the events of World War Two.  While Daddy is testing a new bomber plane (he is after all a munitions manufacturer), he and the group are forced to land somewhere in the midwest.  Annie is injured in an automobile accident, and narrowly escapes the ministrations of quack Dr. Eldeen.  Instead, she is placed under the care of Doctor Zee, a friend of Daddy’s he met in Spain (presumably during the Spanish Civil War), who has become a recluse.

Daddy Warbucks and his associates are reported missing, presumed dead, shortly thereafter, stranding Annie in the large town.  Dr. Zee, one of the few sympathetic characters in the history of the strip with progressive views, is brought out of his shell by Annie, and by reconnecting with a childhood friend who has become known as “Crazy Kate.”  Zee starts a low-cost medical practice that clashes with both Dr. Eldeen (who runs a private clinic for not particularly sick wealthy people and uses heavy drugs to keep them under control) and Dr. Dubb, a mediocre physician who owns the town hospital.

Eventually, it is learned that one of Dr. Eldeen’s patients is a scientist called “Zaney” who has developed an explosive formula vital to national security, which Eldeen wants to sell to the Nazis.  This plot fails, and Eldeen has to go on the run.  Daddy Warbucks and crew reappear alive, but now enlisted in the military of “an allied country” so they can fight the Axis menace.  (Gray didn’t have them enlist in the U.S. Army as then they’d have to obey regulations instead of getting straight down to killing the enemy.)

Determined to do her bit to help win the war, Annie organizes the town kids into “Junior Commandos” who sell War Bonds and collect recyclables for the war effort, performing many helpful functions for soldiers and war workers.  Rather suddenly, the town is near the seacoast so that Annie and a new friend can sink a Nazi submarine.  Shortly thereafter, the town takes in a war refugee nicknamed “Driftwood” who has lost his family to “the invaders.”

Doctor Zee enlists in the military, so Annie and the supporting cast move in with a Mrs. Sleet, a seemingly chilly wealthy woman who Annie helps deal with the loss of her husband and son, and who becomes a sponsor for the Junior Commandos.    Daddy Warbucks and his men are reported killed in the fighting, and Dr. Zee returns minus an arm.  But Annie and a female surgeon, Dr. Clover, help Dr. Zee recover his will to be a healer, and after some mild love triangle shenanigans, Zee marries Katie, his childhood friend.  (There’s also a lot of other action going on in the meantime.)

The Nazis become convinced that Daddy Warbucks (now revealed as surviving) left a copy of Zaney’s formula with Annie, and come up with an elaborate plot to get it from her.  This involves impersonating a reclusive writer, Malcolm Mitt, another of Daddy’s old friends, and inviting Annie to a castle built by an eccentric Spanish immigrant to await her guardian’s return.  The castle is full of secret passageways and tricks, as well as Nazi spies and a submarine harbor.  Annie’s able to recruit the local Junior Commandos and Serbian immigrant “Big George” (formerly a spy on the Germans for twenty years) to help her clean out this nest of rats.

But it’s not until Daddy Warbucks finally shows up for real and Punjab uses his disappearing trick that the situation is fully resolved.  The war’s still on, though, and Annie ends the volume being shipped off to live with another of Daddy’s old friends…

Annie does laundry and philosophy. Yes, all her dresses are red and in the same style. Art by Harold Gray.
Annie does laundry and philosophy. Yes, all her dresses are red and in the same style. Art by Harold Gray.

Annie’s tough and wise beyond her years, and a natural leader, but we do see moments of her still being a child, as when she exclaims in glee over a new doll.   The strip openly mocks the idea of protecting children from the knowledge of war; Driftwood is all too aware that the war does not spare anyone because of age or innocence.  That said, this is not a children’s story as such, but a family one–parents should read these strips along with their kids to aid in understanding the context.

Violence is rife in this story, and Annie, while not directly killing anyone, has to dodge a question on the subject of whether she hasn’t disposed of some enemies permanently.  (It’s also noted that in his backstory, Daddy Warbucks once snapped a man’s neck like a toothpick.)  Don’t let anyone kid you that violence in the media is a modern decline!

One interesting tidbit is the appearance of George, an African-American child, who is afraid he won’t be allowed into the Junior Commandos.  Annie assures him he is welcome, and George swiftly proves his worth, getting a promotion.  He only appears in one Sunday strip (and is mentioned on Monday) but black readers strongly appreciated the interlude.  A Southern newspaper publisher wrote to warn Mr. Gray that he might lose readers in the South for showing “race-mixing.”  Mr. Gray’s response was to the effect that while he fully supported the South working out its own issues, a lot of “colored” people bought newspapers too, especially in the large Northern cities.

The “Nazis in a castle” story isn’t as good; the introduction notes that the artist had recently lost his father, and may have been distracted from his work; also, he was becoming disenchanted with the U.S. government’s handling of the homefront of the war, which would really show up in the next story.

Still, this volume is a good introduction for kids to what life was like on the homefront in World War Two, with proper parental guidance.  Highly recommended to fans of older comic strips.

Book Review: The Jungle

Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Jurgis Rudkos is a Lithuanian immigrant who has come to America with his fiancee Ona and their families to seek the good jobs advertised in his poverty-stricken homeland.  It’s tricky for people who don’t know English or the local customs to get around, but finally they make it to the Packingtown district of Chicago, and a countryman who can give them advice.  Soon, the adults of the family have jobs in the slaughterhouses and related businesses, and they move into a house together.  Times are tough, but if everyone works hard and saves their money, things will surely get better.

The Jungle

But the naive immigrants have no idea just how much worse things can get in a world where the law of the jungle prevails, and each is pitted against each.

This (in)famous novel was originally published as a serial in The Appeal to Reason and One-Hoss Philosophy, Socialist publications.  In order to get it published as a book by a major publishing house, Mr. Sinclair had to tone the story down quite a bit, and it was still considered immensely shocking.  The version I read is called “uncensored” but would more rightly be called “unexpurgated”, with the text as it was written for the serial.

An introduction by Kathleen De Grave explains what was cut for the 1906 version, and how that affects the tone of the story.  For example, it’s left in that the slaughterhouse workers spent their lunch time in saloons, but left out is the explanation that there were no other places to get food in walking distance of the plants.  If you wanted to have a warm place to eat, you must buy alcohol.

In either version, this is a depressing story.  The odds are stacked against Jurgis and his family from the very beginning, with grifters ready to swindle the immigrants any way they can, from phony officials asking for fees that don’t exist to “pesticides” that are completely inert.   One of the central heartbreaking examples is the house the immigrants “rent to buy.”  It is not at all as advertised, there are fees in the lease contract that are not disclosed until well after the family has settled in, and miss even one payment, and you are out in the street.

Which would be fine if everyone stayed in work.  But what if you get sick or injured and they fire you for missing work?  What if your boss fires you because he’s found someone who will do the job for two cents less an hour?  What if the entire factory just closes down for a month or three?  Even the relatively nice employers have no compunctions about getting rid of workers who become inconvenient.

And while the slaughterhouse scenes are as horrific as advertised, don’t think the vegetarians are going to get away unscathed.  Fruits and vegetables and milk are all adulterated, the clothing sold in the stores the poor have access to is thin shoddy (and overpriced at that!) and you can drown in the streets during the rainy season.

The misfortunes that Jurgis and the others undergo are all real, but probably happened to a half-dozen different families that Mr. Sinclair talked to while researching this book.  Here, it’s all visited on one unlucky group of immigrants, and particularly Jurgis.  The rule of thumb is that if Jurgis gets a couple of pages where things are looking up even a little, the hammer is about to come down even harder, sometimes by Jurgis’ own ill-considered actions.

While Jurgis is initially a decent man, who tries to do the right thing, by the time everyone he ever loved is dead, he is ready to chuck conventional morality.  He sinks lower and lower, becoming in turns a mugger, a political operative, and worst of all, a scab worker.

Even when the novel ends on a hopeful note, as the Socialists gain votes (for the only way the world can be saved is to smash capitalism and adopt socialism), Jurgis himself is being carted off to prison for attacking the politically protected man who raped his wife.

Yes, there’s (off-camera) rape in the story, and child abuse (by Jurgis!) and a fair amount of other things that could be triggery, even if you can keep your lunch down during the slaughterhouse scenes.  The last few chapters are nigh unreadable for the opposite reason, as they devolve into sermons (at least one literal) on the benefits of socialism.

There’s early 20th Century ethnic prejudice, racism and sexism on display; it’s up to the reader to decide how much of it is a realistic depiction of the attitudes of the times, and how much Mr. Sinclair being unable to fully rid himself of unworthy cultural blinkers.

It’s also worth considering how things have changed since this book was written, and how little things have changed.  Too many pundits and plunderers would gladly have us go back to before “onerous” government food regulations, minimum wage laws and other protections for workers.  They think that of course they would be immune to the dangers of the Jungle, but in the end, the Jungle consumes everything within it.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...