Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope – book review

No matter what you read lately, whether it’s political, economic, or even comedy relief, the concept of a national divide keeps popping up. It seems there is nothing that we’re not crabby about – which song got the Grammy, whether poodles are better than dalmatians, whether corn counts as a vegetable or a starch. Umpteen books have been written on the divide of “liberal” vs. “conservative,” urban vs. rural, prosperity vs. lazy poor, criminal drug abuser vs. victim of Big Pharma, and into that mix Nicholas Kristof throws out an excellent one, called Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.

Kristof grew up in rural Yamhill, Oregon, a White, conservative town of 1100 people. More than a quarter of the kids he went to school with died of drugs, alcohol, suicide, or reckless accidents caused by drugs or alcohol. Why did he make it out in one piece, while his friends died slowly of alcoholism, often homeless most of their lives? Why did families lose 3, 4, 5 kids to drugs and alcohol? Why did some do fine?

To keep it real, Kristof explores people in similar situations in places like South Dakota, Oklahoma, New York City, Baltimore, and more, bastions of poverty and drugs in the U.S. What he finds is the same issues, handled differently – humanely – makes a world of difference. In places like Oklahoma, the entire penal code is stacked against poor people. Indigent and need a free legal defender? You are then arrested for being indigent, and fined for your arrest. Now you’re in debt to the state. So you are sent to prison for being a debtor – even if it’s only ONE dollar! Now you have more fines added. People are released from prison – private, for-profit prisons, of course – with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from a mere $25 parking ticket. Can’t make the payments on your fines? Back to jail, and more fines. It’s a gerbil wheel of punishing the poor – even though intervention programs can save $10 of tax money for every dollar spent.

And of course, once you have a felony conviction, you can’t get a job. So people turn to selling meth and heroin. And get convicted, and can’t get hired, and get homeless and depressed and turn to drugs…. Over and over and over. Why are Mexicans taking the jobs from under-educated poor white people? Because the Mexicans can be counted on to show up for work, and aren’t drunk or stoned.

Kristof narrows the biggest issues down to two: One is education. Most of the people he knew didn’t graduate, had parents that barely made it to 8th grade, and grandparents who might not have made it to fifth. If you come from a home where there are no books, no magazines, and no expectations of further education, it’s harder to succeed. He explores one family where the mother had a 5th-grade education, and five children by four different fathers. When the first was expelled from kindergarten twice for behavioral issues, she – with a fifth-grade education – decided to home-school her kids (5 under the age of 6). How much of a chance do those kids have?

The second predictor of success was coming from a two-parent home. If you had two parents – and usually two incomes – you had a much greater chance of being successful. Single mothers with a trail of children left those kids in chaos. More than one child entering Yamhill kindergarten was described as “feral.”

Kristof also explores the programs – often started by those who had had enough – that give people just the right boost, whether it’s paying those $1 legal fees and freeing people from prison or getting them a job or housing or a drug treatment program. Such programs are a lifeline for the people involved, and often get them on the track to permanent success. Unfortunately, many of the government programs to do just that have been eliminated in recent years.

The book is easy to read, informative, and does not preach or even really point fingers. It’s careful to present only facts, though the family situations and the culture of violence surrounding them can be maddening. Despite the grim realities, the book ends up on a positive note. This is one to put on your To Be Read list, and check out these other titles in similar vein:

Hillbilly Elegy
The Left Behind
White Trash
Chasing the Scream
Broke, USA
Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America
Survival Math
Nickel and Dimed


Childhood Revisited

  ramona If you grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, you probably read at least one of the Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary. Cleary documents inquisitive, quirky Ramona from the age of four upward, and how her innocent rationales confound and vex her parents, sister, and just about everyone she meets. Cutting her own hair, baking her doll inside a birthday cake, fighting with her sister, starting school – stories every child or parent can relate to with much laughter.

Fast forward a generation. Ramona gives way to Junie B. Jones, a kindergartener of the modern age whose misinterpretations and misguided notions get her into just as much trouble as Ramona, at home and in school. But while Ramona is filled with the sweet innocence of a bygone era, Junie is modern empowered sass. Whether getting into trouble on the schoolbus or with her family or with her nemesis, That May, Junie says aloudjunie what many children and adults often think.

Myself, I’ll take Ramona over Junie B, simply because Junie is a little too fresh for me, but I confess: I love the Junie B. Jones books, and sneak off to read them even though my youngest is now 17. And yes, I would have no problem rereading a Ramona book if I had an hour to kill – I have the whole set. If you love the genre but won’t read a kid’s book, there is hope: if you miss those kinds of stories, of seeing the world through a child’s eyes as they struggle to make sense of the world around them, often hilariously misinterpreting things, fear not! The adult form of those stories exists.

zippyEnter Haven Kimmel, who grew up in the tiny town of Mooreland, Indiana, in the 1970’s (population 300). Kimmel is a real life Ramona Quimby, and she chronicles her life in a book called A Girl Named Zippy. How she sees things, both odd and oh-so-totally familiar (“A Short List of Records My Father Threatened to Break Over my Head If I Played Them One More Time” “A Short List of Things My Father Won Gambling” “The Breakfast Bar at Which No Breakfast Was Ever Eaten.”), will have you laughing out loud where ever you happen to be reading at the time. Her cast of crazy characters, both friends and family, are common to almost every family, whether they admit them or not. Her father works in a factory, her mother lies on the couch watching TV ignoring any and all household chores, and there’s nothing in the house to eat but carrots. Although Kimmel never has clean clothes (people she visits tend to wash her clothes for her when she stops by), only one room has heat, and the house is falling down around them, Kimmel never feels neglected. She hates her Quaker roots and three-times-a-week church, her mother’s best friend has the mouth of a sailor (I can’t help but see Kathy Bates playing her in a movie), and her brother and sister flee home at the first opportunity.couch

In her second book, She Got Up Off the Couch, Kimmel describes her later years when her mother got some gumption, got off the couch, and decided to enroll at Ball State University – though it only made the home conditions worse, if possible. While being on campus with her mother, attending theater, even just listening to her mother’s phone conversations, Kimmel is suddenly thrust into realizing there’s a world beyond Mooreland, and she is never the same again. Things are not always fun and games, and Kimmel starts to become aware of the differences of how she lives versus how other people live (her father’s friend has gold toilets and velvet wallpaper; they have a hole in their wall that goes almost to the outside, and no running water), and begins to notice her parents are never together. Eventually she catches on to the fact her father’s having an affair, but even then Kimmel’s tone is wistful and both painfully accusatory and forgiving at the same time.

Whether you grew up in the 60’s, 70’s, or 90’s, the fact that you grew up at all gives you a common experience shared by everyone else, oftentimes more than you know. If you can’t relate directly to Kimmel, you probably knew someone in your neighborhood just like her. Whether you grew up in Indiana, Oregon, Arizona, or Massachusetts, you will find delight and painful familiarity in Kimmel’s youthful innocence (“She picked out a wig to wear on the special day, too, a style and color she considered “subtle’ and which I thought said ‘Pekingese.’”), while your children laugh knowingly at Junie and Ramona. It is the same story, different audiences.

Author Profile: Robyn Carr

robyn carrRobyn Carr published her first book in 1978, but it took her 30 years to make the New York Times Best Seller List.  She is a pioneer of the small-town romance genre.

She married her high school sweetheart during the peak of the Vietnam War.  She studied nursing in college, but couldn’t practice because of their constant moving between military bases.  To occupy her time, she took up reading and fell in love with romances.  She feels romances are important because people need a safe place to deal with emotions they’re stuck with, and a book is a safe place to do that.  After much trial and error, she settled upon writing contemporary romances.  Her novels deal with real issues in a realistic manner.  She is strongly drawn to issues and causes that honor men and women who serve our country.  Her stories are about strong, capable women who have issues that every woman faces at some point in her life.

She is the author of the very popular Virgin River series.  It is a blend of romance and women’s fiction that entertains as well as addresses sensitive issues, such as domestic violence, health issues, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It takes place in a fictional town in the Redwood forests of California.  The series centers around men of honor and the women they love.  The first book of the series, Virgin River, was published in 2007.  There are 20 books in the series.  They are:

  1. Virgin River
  2. Shelter Mountain
  3. Whispering Rock
  4. A Virgin River Christmas
  5. Second Chance Pass
  6. Temptation Ridge
  7. Paradise Valley
  8. Under the Christmas Tree (novella)(not available)
  9. Forbidden Falls
  10. Angel’s Peak
  11. Moonlight Road
  12. Midnight Confessions (novella)(not available)
  13. Promise Canyon
  14. Wild Man Creek
  15. Harvest Moon
  16. Bring Me Home for Christmas
  17. Hidden Summit
  18. Redwood Bend
  19. Sunrise Point
  20. My Kind of Christmas

Ms. Carr has spent most of 2012 writing a brand new series, Thunder Point.  It is set in a picturesque coastal community on the Oregon coast.  Like her Virgin River series, this series will make you laugh, sigh, and fall in love with a small town filled with people you’ll never forget.  Book one – The Wanderer is out now.  It will be followed by The Newcomer in July and The Hero in September.