Sorting White Trash

indexIt was a hard call, but I’d say White Trash by Nancy Isenberg was my Number 2 Must Read of 2016 (after Chasing the Scream), but oh, have I put off writing about it because it played so much into last year’s politics it seemed as if it were written for it – but it couldn’t, because it was written before last year’s one-of-a-kind election year.

“White Trash” is a term that began just before the Civil War and became entrenched afterward, a term for the poorest white people who were absolutely uneducated, dirty, poorer than slaves – and had no desire to change their ways. They considered themselves perfectly fine and above anyone else. Rich people were to be sneered at, since they considered themselves better. Educated people were sneered at, because they considered themselves better. Yet as a class they were so despised for their lack of morals and work ethic, even slaves considered themselves above Poor White Trash.

Isenberg feels the concept goes back further than that. Who did England send over to1400306193764-cached America to pad out their colonies? Who would not be missed from the overcrowded prisons and cities? Not the landed gentry, but those persons who for whatever reason did not fit into society and were unsuccessful at supporting themselves. The Virginia Colony had to go so far as to set a death sentence for people who did not work and did not attend church on Sundays. Starvation was so bad that people resorted to cannibalism. The people sent over refused to work, preferring to run off to unsettled land (which was “owned” by others) and fend for themselves. Getting people to do the hard labor of setting up a colony was quite difficult.

Further, Isenberg says that as the country expanded, the first to move west were… the folk who refused to work for others, could not function in a society, and would rather starve than work. Each time, the ones who pushed west first were the dregs, seeking escape from prisons, debt collectors, tax men, and others who “infringed” upon them. The wild west was wild because the people who colonized it couldn’t get along with anyone.

“White Trash” has many names, depending on geography – Crackers, Okies, Rednecks, Hillbillies, Trailer Trash, Mud Eaters – all people who shun government, distrust education, live in abject poverty, and have a very flexible moral code. I don’t mean “flexible” as a pejorative but as a term to describe a juxtaposition of ideals: your baby out of wedlock is a sin, but it’s okay for me. Never take charity, but taking free stuff from this agency over here isn’t charity, it’s just free stuff. They have quite the knack for making things acceptable for them but a sin for anyone else.

Isenberg digs into both politics and popularism, citing Andrew Jack110932-004-3f4811e2son (the first person running for President who lost despite getting the most popular votes the first time he ran) as an uneducated, crass boor who appealed to the lowest masses and yet was elected President, and how he loved to flaunt that boorishness, to the distress of the American Gentry. She cites the 1970’s as a time when White Trash became hip – from Smokey and the Bandit, to the Dukes of Hazzard, to Tammy Faye Bakker and the  whole Televangelist craze. Today’s exploitainment shows like Duck Dynasty, Honey Boo Boo, and 16 and Pregnant continue to flaunt poverty, lawlessness, and lack of education as something chic and desirable.

Of course race and politics play into it. Much of the divide still stems from the Civil War, with Southern States blaming Northern States for the outcomes, and the Northern States holding the South in utter contempt. Isenberg shows how that all translates into votes, and political forums, and how those in turn affect our elections – including the recent one.

indexIsenberg is not alone in her observations. Numerous authors have also written similar observations, making her research more plausible. One is Deer Hunting With Jesus, by Joe Bageant, in which he talks about going home to rural Virginia, and why such places are becoming  a permanent underclass.  Lee Smith touches on a little of it in her dreamy autobiography Dimestore, about growing up in rural Appalachia.  Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance does a fantastic job presenting the issues from the first-hand experience of growing up in 1980’s Kentucky.

No matter what your political leanings, White Trash815bv15ciol will open your eyes to why current politics are playing out the way they are and how people are being exploited in the process, why you can’t seem to educate people out of poverty, and how that poverty persists generation after generation – and no, it’s not due to Welfare. How do we change it? How do we shape it? Or should we allow an uneducated underclass to dictate policies it knows nothing about – and chooses not to learn?  There’s no easy answer to be had, but this book is a must read and will open your eyes to a lot of things you never learned in school.

Susan’s Picks from 2014

I feel terrible for only squeezing in 27 books this year, a new low for me, but considering I wrote or edited three books in between, I don’t feel so bad. I am an unforgivable nerd, wallowing in science, history, psychology, and biography to the point I read almost no fiction at all anymore. I feel bad when people ask me to recommend something and I have no clue what to offer because the last really good book I read was on the histology of Ebola, or they’re looking for romance recommendations and my idea of a great romance is the novelization of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here are the best and worst I read this year, not counting a reread of Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, which I love so much I gave out ten copies at Christmas:

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Jacket.aspxThe Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox. Fox covers the work by Michael Ventris, who eventually untangled the mystery of the early Greek/Mycenean Linear B glyphs, but spends much of the book discussing Alice Kober’s work, so much of it uncredited yet without which Ventris would not have succeeded. When Kober – who spent the majority of her life working on the syllabary – dies just a year before the pieces fall into place, you want to cry for her. If you love a good detective novel – this is a true story that shook the history world. (I warned you about the nerdism).

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Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff. An incredible book about the decay of Detroit, a city so far gone America has forgotten it exists, while the people still try to survive in a place without – well, anything. No jobs, no police, no grocery stores, and most recently, no water. Made me incredibly angry to see America left to rot like this.

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WJacket.aspxho Discovered America? by Gavin Menzies. Ever read a book that makes you feel like you woke up on an alien world, that everything you were ever told about history was wrong? This book takes Thor Heyerdahl to a whole new level, pointing out overwhelming scientific evidence that Asian, African, and European peoples were routinely coming to America long before Columbus was born. Utterly fascinating. Even if Menzies is only 10% right, it still changes everything we know about history. Easy to read, and you won’t be able to put it down.

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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in Northern Korea, by Barbara Demick. This book is so touching and so sad, you cannot help but be moved by people who have so little control over their lives that even their food and clothing is doled out by the government, and if they say you will starve, then you starve, because they will not give you more. People risking death to swim to China, or pay for an underground railroad to South Korea, where they have extreme culture shock that defies the propaganda they have been fed for generations. Hate the leader, but love the people. I love Gavin Menzies, but I think this gets my vote for Best Book of the Year.

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deafI Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey Through the Science of Sound and Language, by Lydia Denworth. Denworth’s youngest son is born profoundly deaf; this is her story not only of trying to decide how to educate him (as a lip-reader, a signer, or hearing w/ a cochlear implant). Interspersed with her journey is the science behind hearing and language, and the history of deafness, and it is utterly fascinating how much hearing and learning are interconnected, and why many deaf people never read beyond a fourth-grade level.

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John LeCarré. I needed to read a couple of spy novels as research for a book I was writing. Every list I looked at said this was the best. I have no doubt they are right. A spy novel that will keep you guessing until the very end, it makes James Bond look like a pampered fool. Very British, but very, very good.

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boyWorst book I read this year? There were a couple of stinkers, but I think the worst I read was The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood, by Roger Rosenblatt. I don’t care how many awards he’s gotten. I almost never abandon a book half-way through, but I just couldn’t finish this. It has a boy, and he’s in New York, but the rest is just a single run-on sentence of chapterless rambling. You know how your brain wanders foggy from topic to topic when you’re lying in bed half asleep? That’s this book. I read some clunkers, but I made it to the end of them. This one I couldn’t get past 50 pages. No, thank you.

 

What did you like/dislike this year?

Jane Fonda’s Adopted Daughter

jane fondaIt came as a surprise to many people that Jane Fonda has an adopted African-American daughter who was raised in Oakland during the 70’s in a family that belonged to the Black Panthers.   Mary Williams’ father was in prison most of her life, her older sister was a prostitute and her mother struggled to raise six children alone.   When Mary was thirteen, she was invited to spend the summer at the Laurel Springs Children’s camp run by Jane Fonda and her then husband, Tom Hayden.  Mary flourished at the camp and started to confide in Jane about her difficult life at home.  After Mary suffered a nightmare assault, Jane provided care and therapy and invited her to come live with her family.  Jane was a wonderful mother who helped with homework, and offered inspiration and encouragement.

Mary’s life since has been one of adventure and opportunity.  It also involved returning to Oakland to reconnect with her biological family.  The Lost Daughter: A Memoir is a chronicle of her journey back in time, an exploration of fractured family bonds, and a moving epic of self-discovery.