Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

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A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. As I mentioned before, I’d never read the Little House books, so I’ve been catching up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

That is not a criticism of Wilder. She was writing for children and wanted to spare them the most devastating details. She was also writing to memorialise her parents, her father in particular, so of course she managed the details to show them in a good light.

For example, one thing that was obvious to me reading the books as an adult, even without Fraser’s clarification, was that Wilder’s father was not above stealing, as when he knowingly tried to homestead on land that belonged to the Osage. He was also terribly reckless, constantly dragging the family away from security to chase a dream of a self-sufficient farm far from other people.

Fraser makes clear the near impossibility of achieving that dream, given the lack of federal programs at the time, the uncertain and often disastrous natural conditions—drought, storms, locusts—and the unsuitable land set aside for homesteaders. There is much here for us to consider looking at today’s situation: ongoing ecological damage that has put us on the edge of another Dust Bowl, the difficulty of making a small farm work even with boutique vegetables and the growth of farmers’ markets, and the near takeover of agriculture by enormous farms run by corporate agribusinesses with large federal handouts.

Yet, as the book’s subtitle, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, asserts, that image of the self-sufficient pioneer pulling himself up by his bootstraps is a big part of the U.S.’s mythology. Much of the credit for that goes to Wilder’s books, as Fraser’s account shows.

As an adult, however, I could glean even from Wilder’s idealised stories that the family often depended on the help of others. The truth is even more substantial, not only during Wilder’s childhood, but even as an adult when she somehow didn’t see the hypocrisy of decrying government assistance while receiving federal money herself. Just as many of the people today who hate the government are the ones themselves receiving the most assistance.

Before reading Fraser’s book, I was unaware of the influence of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, on the books and on her mother. It was Lane, already a journalist, although one who larded her stories with fictional elements, who pushed her mother to write the books. It was Lane who first edited them, with the two wrangling over changes. Lane also wrote her own books, appropriating some of her mother’s stories and penning a thinly-veiled Mommy Dearest novel.

Fraser treats Lane fairly, acknowledging her strengths while not hesitating to point out her weaknesses. She presents her as emotionally unstable, with several nervous breakdowns, and increasingly prone to paranoid conspiracy theories. Lane was part of the triumvirate of Founding Mothers of the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. She also pushed her mother to join her in her angry rants against the government, adding political screeds to some of her mother’s later books.

Of course, we are still struggling with the effects of Lane’s work. Many of today’s politicians criminalise the poor, condemning them for needing assistance. Many demand that the federal government be downsized, if not disbanded, while living high on the hog on federal money themselves, ignoring the hypocrisy. An egregious example is Maryland Republican Andy Harris who campaigned on doing away with the Affordable Health Care Act, which would take away heath care from up to 10 million citizens, complaining when elected that his taxpayer-funded health care wouldn’t take effect for a month.

It is no wonder that during the Great Depression and WWII people flocked to Wilder’s simple tales of a loving family, enduring hard times together, as embodied by a line from a hymn that recurs in the books: “We are all here.”

The Little House books are lovely fairy tales for children, but not something to base a nation on. However, even if we question the myth of a self-sufficient, rugged individual, many of us today embrace other values extolled in Wilder’s books: the importance of family, being happy with simple things, pulling together and being brave when things go wrong.

Even if you’ve never read the children’s books, this biography is essential to understand how we in the U.S. have gotten to where we are today.

What book have you read that illuminated an historical era and its effects on us today?

Borderlines, by Archer Mayor

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If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I like mysteries. Their literary quality is often outstanding, and I always love a good puzzle. This second book in Archer Mayor’s series featuring Joe Gunther hits every mark, making it one of the best police procedurals I’ve read.

Gunther, a policeman in Brattleboro, Vermont, has been seconded to the State’s Attorney at the opposite end of the state. Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is an isolated, rural area far from the state’s scenic mountains and tourist destinations, and depressed economically, even in 1990 when this novel came out.

He’s familiar with the area, having spent childhood summers here with his aunt and uncle. He’s looking forward to time with his now-widowed Uncle Buster, whose benevolent support he could use as he wrestles with questions regarding both work and love.

In the gripping opening scene, Gunther’s journey is interrupted by an illegal shot, but he is quickly reminded that his authority as a law enforcement officer is limited in the Northeast Kingdom, which is “populated by people who had chosen to put their independence and wariness of the rest of the world above the hardships of living here.”

The pace doesn’t let up, as Gunther arrives in Gannet, the small village of his childhood summers. Ramshackle and rundown, the town allowed half of its building to be bought up by an intentional community, seen by some as a cult. Tensions between the Order and the town have grown, only to explode when a couple from Massachusetts arrives to rescue their daughter. The tension is nicely modulated, with plenty of scenes of Gunther sitting on a step with a childhood friend, walking with his uncle, or phoning his girlfriend to vary the suspense before building to a satisfying climax.

What’s best here is Gunther himself. With this character Mayor finds just the right balance of thought and action. Gunther’s quiet, unassuming voice sets him apart from sometimes brash or bragging detectives. Though there’s not a lot of soul-searching, he’s quick to acknowledge his own mistakes. We’re given all we need to perceive his sorrow at the way the village and its people have deteriorated. The loss of his childhood refuge provides shading to Julie’s story, the young woman whose parents have come to steal her from the cult.

There is one twist that seemed to come almost out of nowhere. Mystery writers have the daunting task of planting enough clues to significant plot twists so that readers think Oh, of course! Why didn’t I see that? while not so many that we guess it too soon. Mayor did an excellent job of preparing for all the plot twists here, save one, noticeable only because of the superb plotting everywhere else.

In talking about the elements in fiction, plot and character are the stars. Increasingly, though, I find myself drawn to novels in which the setting is richly evoked and becomes almost another character. Mayor does that here, brilliantly. The environment he evokes helps us anticipate and understand the people in this story, all brought to life, no matter how small their role. It also charges the mood of the story.

When I was younger, the Kingdom had been much as the name implies – a magical other world, removed from the mainstream and endowed with a specialness in the minds of those who knew of it. Its topography, both rugged and cursive, could reject and embrace, kill and nurture. It was a place where land and weather ruled, where the beauty came less from the majestic mountain views found further south, and more from the perpetual surprises that lurked behind the low, ever-present hills. Even at its harshest, the Kingdom was seductive, as when its omnipotent sky darkened with boiling blue-black clouds, low slung and pregnant with threat.

Its people, like those of Gannet, clung to this mercurial terrain mostly out of choice . . . They were independent, self-supporting, proud, and generally uninterested in what was happening outside of their boundaries . . . But, obviously, the fabric of the Kingdom had begun to strain and yield.

Even now, several decades after publication, this book is a valuable resource if you want to understand the crumbling lives of the rural poor. Mayor’s insight into his fellow Vermonters is demonstrated on every page. As death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and formerly a detective and volunteer firefighter, Mayor brings the authority of real-world experience to this spellbinding tale.

Have you read one of Archer Mayor’s books? What did you think of it? Do you have a favorite?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 1

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Rukeyser has been one of my favorite poets since I first stumbled across her work while in my early 20s. I was drawn to her initially by her commitment to social justice. She spoke out against poverty and racism in poems that didn’t need to preach. Instead, they make you yourself feel what it is like to suffer such injustice.

While still a young woman, she traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where scores of people were dying of a new disease: silicosis. It caused by breathing the silicate dust that coated the town, while the mine’s owners refused to admit the connection or provide any protection. They simply fired anyone who was too ill to work.

When the blast went off the boss would call out, Come, let’s go back,
when that heavy loaded blast went white, Come, let’s go back,
telling us hurry, hurry, into the falling rocks and muck.

That poem, “George Robinson: Blues”, is a good example of how Rukeyser worked her magic. It is a persona poem, in the voice of George Robinson (his real name was Robison). It starts off gently:

Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes, they let us stand around, they let us stand
around on the sidewalks if we’re black or brown.
Vanetta’s over the trestle, and that’s our town.

Then it begins to turn:

The hill makes breathing slow, slow breathing after you row the river,
and the graveyard’s on the hill, cold in the springtime blow,
the graveyard’s up on high, and the town is down below.

Did you ever bury thirty-five men in a place in back of your house,
thirty-five tunnel workers the doctors didn’t attend,
died in the tunnel camps, under rocks, everywhere, world without end.

We are taken deeper into the anguish, anger buried under the simple facts. Finally Robinson’s voice comes back to a hopeless stoicism and wry humor.

Looked like somebody sprinkled flour all over the parks and groves,
it stayed and the rain couldn’t wash it away and it twinkled
that white dust really looked pretty down around our ankles.

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night,
with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.
The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white.

Deeply interested in science, Rukeyser believed that poetry is “an exchange of energy, a system of relationships.” Energy is exchanged between poet and reader. Connections are made between images, images and words, but most of all between the poet and the reader. The poem asks the reader to feel something. In her extraordinary book The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser says, “One of the invitations of poetry is to come to the emotional meanings at every moment.”

To be continued next week when we’ll look more closely at some elements of Rukeyser’s craft.

What poems of social commentary stand out for you?

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

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These days I’m on the lookout for positive stories. I can only bear an hour or two of news early in the day, leaving me time to bury my dismay and disgust with normal daily activities before darkness comes.

I came to this memoir by the Supreme Court justice—the first Hispanic and only the third woman—with some hesitation. I knew it would be a story of success, but feared it would might be saccharine and superficial.

I needn’t have worried. Sotomayor is an excellent writer. Her prose is clear and flows well, developing scenes and narrative that a reader can easily follow. I think this skill must have been honed in her written arguments, where logic and emotion must both be consistently deployed.

It can be hard to find the right tone in a memoir. You have to describe your successes in a way that doesn’t come across as bragging, not even a “humble brag”. You have to talk about the obstacles in your way without whining or succumbing to a woe-is-me mentality. You have to be open about your failures.

Sotomayor starts by describing a scene soon after her diabetes diagnosis when both of her parents argue about giving her the insulin injection she needs. Burdened by their sadness, seven-year-old Sonia decides to learn to prepare the injection and give it to herself. The scene is a good introduction, not only to the challenges facing her—illness, financial hardship, cultural difference—but also to what she calls “the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with.”

I understand. I often say that I am lucky to have been born with the happy gene. I’m less good at perseverance, but Sotomayor shows in situation after situation how extra effort can compensate for other gifts.

What keeps this memoir of her successful rise in the legal world is two-fold. For one thing, there are plenty of stories of failures mixed in with the successes, misery among the happy times. The other is the credit she repeatedly gives to others who have helped her along the way. On the first page of the first chapter, right after her remark about optimism and perseverance, she says:

At the same time, I would never claim to be self-made—quite the contrary: at every stage of my life, I have always felt that the support I’ve drawn from those closest to me has made the decisive difference between success and failure.

It is this generous spirit, shown also towards her parents where her love for them shines through even when she describes their failures, that makes me want to cheer her on and give her more credit than she gives herself.

Another challenge of writing a memoir is deciding what time frame to choose. I think she made a wise choice to start with her independent approach to her diabetes and end with her first becoming a judge. Since becoming a judge was her dream from the beginning, it ties up the story neatly.

If you’re feeling low, I recommend this book. As she says in the preface, “People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.” Although our circumstances are dissimilar and our ideas of what makes an ending happy differ, her story lifted my own spirits.

What book have you read that brightened your day?

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

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Lissa Evans’s fourth novel is set in and around London during the Blitz in WWII. The characters are ordinary people, not homefront heroes like midwives or wardens or detectives. Well, I say ordinary, but like the best fiction, Crooked Heart shows us how extraordinary each life may be.

In the remarkable prologue, we are introduced to orphaned 10-year-old Noel who lives with his godmother in Hampstead. Mattie, a suffragette in her younger days, has retained her free-thinking ways, treating Noel to an eccentric and wonderful education. However, she is beginning to suffer from dementia. As she struggles to remember words and where she put things, the wordplay and accommodations between Mattie and Noel are wonderful to behold.

I’m generally not fond of prologues, but I loved this one. In fact, I thought it the best part of the book.

All good things come to an end, including Mattie, and ostensibly under the care of her cousins, Noel is evacuated to St. Albans. Unprepossessing and limping from a bout with polio, Noel is the last child to find a home. Finally, Vera Sedge snatches him up for the sake of the stipend and extra rations she’ll receive.

Vera, known as Vee, is a widow who barely makes ends meet by sewing notions for hats and engaging in various small money-making schemes. She has little affection to spare for Noel since she is absorbed in waiting on her no-good grown son and elderly mother who spends her time writing letters to Churchill.

Noel, however, is quite brilliant and, thanks to Mattie, creative at coming up with unusual solutions to problems. He and Vee become partners in petty crime.

Much of the joy in this book is seeing how their relationship develops. The description of wartime London, where the two conduct their activities, is brilliant. More than what it’s like to take refuge from the bombs in a shelter or the unsettling disappearance of buildings, we learn about the plethora of minor crime going on while ordinary mores seem to be suspended. I also enjoyed the glimpses of regular life continuing during the Blitz, how people adjust to the new normal.

Much of the story is light-hearted, but it has its dark side—and I’m not just talking about bombs. The reader cannot help but share Vee’s ongoing panic about how to make ends meet and the extremes she’s willing to go to in order to pay the rent—just like today when so many are struggling to survive.

How can you not consider stealing a loaf of bread if your children are hungry? And I’m not just talking about the Blitz or Jean Valjean. People are starving today, even in the richest country in the world. People—especially single mothers—are unable to pay the rent and are thrown onto the street.

I’m sure there are those who would describe this novel as charming or heart-warming. Perhaps it is my own background that makes me so aware of the shadow of desperate poverty that haunts the comic shenanigans of Vee and Noel. As in drawing, thought, the shading adds depth and power to this story.

Have you read a novel that is by turns funny and sad, light-hearted and dark?

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

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This 1855 novel has much to say about our own times. It is the story of eighteen-year-old Margaret Hale who moves with her parents from a rural hamlet in the south of England to the fictional Milton in the industrial north. There is a bit of misdirection at the beginning of the story, which starts in London where Margaret has been living with her aunt, uncle and cousin Eliza for half of her lifetime.

The story then moves to Margaret’s beloved Helstone, where she has returned to live with her parents after Eliza’s wedding. She says Helstone is “‘only a hamlet; I don’t think I could call it a village at all. There is the church and a few houses near it on the green—cottages, rather—with roses growing all over them.’” While there, she awkwardly receives a proposal from the brother of Eliza’s new husband.

So far it seems like a romance, a novel of manners. But then Margaret’s father suffers a crisis of conscience, gives up the church, and moves the family north where he will become a private tutor.

Similar to the U.S., with its tensions between red and blue states, coasts and midlands, the U.K. has traditionally been divided between the industrial north and the agricultural south. These tensions drive the story. Set in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Gaskell uses Margaret’s mistakes and misunderstandings to explore issues related to the first-generation cotton mills and those who own or work in them.

When the Hales first arrive in Milton, they detest the noise and hurry and dirt. Margaret takes a dislike to her first acquaintance, John Thornton, brusque owner of Marlborough Mill and her father’s first pupil. She looks down on him as a tradesman, “sagacious, and strong” but “not quite a gentleman”. She criticises him, too, for not caring for his workers outside of work hours, saying he should be giving them moral instruction and making sure they have enough food and a decent place to live. But that is not how things are done in the north, where workers are free to make their own choices once they leave work.

Margaret quickly befriends a young woman, Bessy Higgins, whose father John works in another mill. Horrified by their poverty and Bessy’s “cotton consumption”, a disease caused by the air quality in the mills, Margaret invites herself to their home to bring a basket of food, as she used to do in the south for her father’s poorer parishioners. To her surprise, the Higginses are offended. As she learns to respect their independence, they become friends.

Margaret’s mistakes and missteps in what to her is an entirely new culture mirror our own easy assumptions from the beginning of the story: that a London wedding and an awkward proposal in a pastoral rose garden signalled a familiar story of romance. Gaskell’s clever misdirection resulted in my feeling great sympathy for Margaret as she struggles to to look past her preconceptions and recognise what is really there.

Margaret’s coming-of-age story alone is sturdy enough to carry the reader’s attention, but what I found intriguing were the even-handed discussions about the rights and responsibilities of “masters” and “men”. These organically arise in the story as Margaret’s reactions, conversations between her father and Thornton, Thornton and his fellow mill owners, and—most interestingly—between Thornton and Higgins, whom Margaret brings together.

Thornton complains that workers don’t understand the market forces that prevent him from raising their wage, while the workers believe he is just living in luxury while they suffer.

As Thornton and Higgins begin a strange sort of friendship, their mistrust and misunderstanding of each other fade and their respect grows. Thornton has already installed a wheel to draw out the cotton fluff that fills the air and destroys lungs, over the objections of some workers who believe all the fluff they swallow inadvertently helps prevent hunger. Thornton works with Higgins to provide a hot midday meal for the workers, so they at least get one good meal a day.

As workers, our concerns today are less about food and more about health care and other benefits, but the same mitigation holds true. In companies where owners and workers communicate, such as the one where I was lucky enough to work, benefits and the occasional necessary belt-tightening are out in the open.

The novel takes place during a time of great social upheaval. Industrialisation was changing the job market—Margaret’s mother can’t find a maid willing to work for a Helstone wage when young women could be earning more in a factory—at the same time that railroads were revolutionising movement. And everything was speeding up.

We are at a similar crossroads. Globalisation and automation are changing the face of work. Without unions—whose pros and cons are explored here too—workers are at the mercy of the bosses. With so many companies being publicly traded rather than owned by one person or one family, there is no Thornton to appeal to. Income inequality is even worse than during Gaskell’s time. And, yes, things seem to be speeding up even more.

One way to gain a more balanced view of the issues which divide us today is to look at how they played out in the past. This novel, sweetened as it is by Margaret’s story, is an excellent start.

Have you read a novel that’s helped you understand one of today’s issues?

Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

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A recent post by Ellen Moody about Gaskell’s novel North and South reminded me that I hadn’t read anything by this author besides her Life of Charlotte Brontë. I set out to remedy that gap starting with this, her first novel.

Little did I know how relevant to today’s political situation it would turn out to be. As Moody said, many of Gaskell’s books, including North and South and Mary Barton, share a “radical political vision.” The author embodies this vision through characters and plot but also sometimes steps back to give the big picture and further context. Instead of being preachy, though, the novel had me fully immersed and racing to finish it. It’s a bit sentimental at times, but Gaskell manages to keep it moving.

Set in Manchester in 1839, the story concerns two working class families: the Bartons and the Wilsons. John Barton, grieved by the loss of his wife and the terrible economic distress of the time, becomes involved in the trade union and Chartist movements. He rails against the gap between rich and poor, between mill owners and workers. When his closest friend, George Wilson, remarks that Barton never liked the “gentlefolks”, Barton responds:

“And what good have they ever done me that I should like them . . . If I am sick, do they come and nurse me? If my child lies dying (as poor Tom lay, with his white wan lips quivering, for want of better food than I could give him), does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life? If I am out of work for weeks in the bad times, and winter comes, with black frost, and keen east wind, and there is no coal for the grate, and no clothes for the bed, and the thin bones are seen through the ragged clothes, does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion wasn’t a humbug? . . . No, I tell you, it’s the poor, and the poor only, as does such things for the poor. Don’t think to come over me with th’ old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds . . .”

Both men fall on hard times as the mill cuts back on workers (but not on the mill owners’ lavish entertainments). John Barton and George Wilson end up relying on their children’s income. George’s hard-working son Jem has long loved John’s daughter Mary, but she has been walking out with Harry Carson, a mill owner’s son. She believes he intends to marry her, but of course he doesn’t plan on crossing that social boundary.

With food prices rising and jobs disappearing, families are starving. Gaskill’s descriptions of the suffering of the poor are shocking. As she explains in her Preface, she hopes through her story to convey the desperate situation of the working poor and their resentment of the mill owners, in the hope that those who can will be moved to help through legislation and private charity.

I recently visited the Foundling Museum in London to explore the history of the Foundling Hospital established in 1739 by Thomas Coram. He was horrified by the number of babies left to die on the street by families that could not afford to feed them. The institution provided food, clothing, shelter and education, helping the grown children to find jobs or enter the military. While the hospital closed in 1954, the charity continues today as Coram.

What moved me to tears were the loving notes left for the children by desperate mothers and the displays of tokens left with them: a string of beads, a ribbon, thimble or crudely etched medallion—something unique that a mother returning to claim a child could describe to identify her son or daughter. Few could afford to return, though.

Outside, behind the statue of Thomas Coram there is a little sculpture by Tracy Emin of a mitten on the iron fence, like the tokens inside. People have tied ribbons to the nearby fence spikes.

It is children who suffer the most from the great disparity between rich and poor. Gaskell’s genius is to show us that children on both sides suffer, though differently.

What novel have you read that addresses social problems along with the characters’ story?

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A Thousand Resurrections: An Urban Spiritual Journey, by Maria Garriott

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In 1980 a pair of newlyweds, fresh out of college, left the suburbs to begin an urban ministry in a blighted neighborhood in Baltimore. Naive and earnest, already expecting a child, they wanted to bring hope to at least a corner of this city where great wealth and great poverty existed side by side.

I, too, moved to Baltimore in 1980, moved back, despite my vows never to return after leaving in 1968, the year Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were killed, the year Baltimore erupted in riots whose wounds have still not healed. I couldn’t bear the racism, some overt, some more subtle, much of it structured into the way the city worked.

I ended up living just a few blocks from the Garriotts, though I didn’t know it then. Although I’d grown up in a prosperous neighborhood, I’d spent many of the intervening years as a single parent on welfare, finding my footing in a world that was foreign to me.

Maria writes movingly of her journey, which was similar to mine: coping with culture shock and learning to find the value in everyone, even the people we’d been taught to despise, while resisting the temptation to sentimentalise the poor. The house they bought had several apartments, which left them sometimes sharing a home with addicts and prostitutes, and people who heard voices. They struggled to find funding to support their work.

Everywhere we turned we saw needs: children lacking supervision and healthy activities after school; youths standing idle for want of jobs and job training, dropouts needing tutoring and G.E.D. classes; teenage mothers desperate for mentoring to break the cycle of poverty; drug addicts waiting months for scarce treatment slots.

What makes this memoir so important is its honesty. If you really want to know what life is like in a struggling urban neighborhood, this book is for you. You can’t rely on television dramas or news reports to tell you about that life; it is both better and worse than you think. Maria’s story is not a dewy-eyed romantic picture of helping the poor but rather a hard look at the day-to-day reality of living according to your beliefs.

Maria writes openly of the struggles she and her husband faced living in and ministering to a mostly African-American community. They were questioned by others, yes, but even more by themselves, always wondering if an African-American pastor would be better able to serve the community, welcoming recruits of all ethnicities and ages.

Maria shares the stories of many of these people: neighbors, members of the church, volunteers who helped with the ministry. She writes movingly of many of them, such as Steve Stahl who lived in one of their apartments, participated in their church, and suffered from schizophrenia and depression.

Even more strikingly, Maria shares her worries about the effect on her five children, growing up in such a neighborhood, being the only white children in school, watching their childhood friends die from guns or drugs.

I remember the earnest people I knew in college, who started and participated in programs to help those in poverty, both here and abroad. I also remember living in poverty myself and learning to tell who can help and who can’t. It is obvious that the Garriotts have made a difference, not just to the members of their church, but also to their neighborhood. Many of us have thoughts of helping others, but few truly live their beliefs as the Garriotts have.

Maria’s path is only one of many. There are lots of ways to make a difference. It doesn’t have to be a church. It can be working at a food kitchen or teaching poetry in prisons, mentoring a troubled youth or teaching in an urban school. It helps us all to learn about those who are doing such things. These stories remind us that there is good in the world and we can help to make it happen.

What true stories have you read that have inspired you?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer

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Did you think that the days of extreme poverty in the U.S. were over? Did you think there was a safety net in place? Think again.

After over 20 years of poverty research, Kathryn Edin began to see an entirely new level of despair: families in the U.S. getting by with almost no cash income. Luke Shaefer, an expert on the Survey of Income and Program Participation administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, didn’t believe her. He decided to prove Edin was wrong, using the World Bank’s poverty threshold as his upper limit. After crunching the numbers, however, he found that in 2011, “1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month.”

How could this happen in a country so prosperous? We hear a lot about income inequality these days, but not about this kind of extreme poverty. Through stories of individual families backed by solid research, the authors detail the reasons why this kind of poverty has been increasing since 1996, “and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.”

1996: you remember. That was the year welfare reform destroyed the safety net. No longer was there any guarantee for those whose severe poverty qualified them for assistance. And what federal money remained was changed to go to the states as block grants with wide leeway on how they could spend it; it didn’t actually have to go to poor people. As documented in this book, people are so routinely denied—often being told there is no more money—that most poor people don’t bother applying. Many don’t even know there is a benefit for which they qualify. The authors call the commentators who in 1996 foresaw the coming catastrophe “remarkably prescient”, but those of us who’d been poor saw it all too clearly; we knew how fragile and under siege our benefits had always been.

The other factor, of course, is the ever-worsening lack of jobs. Even if they can get a job—as everyone interviewed has done in the past—the pay is so low, the hours unreliable, the benefits non-existent, that it is not enough to lift them out of poverty. And that’s not even considering the ways that bosses take advantage of their employees, since it’s a buyer’s market for them.

How is it even possible to manage without a cash income? You can only use food stamps for actual food, not soap or kids’ shoes or rent or light. We meet many families in this book, each with their own strategies. Their stories are told with the calm of a social scientist, tempered by compassion. You cannot help but be moved by the stories of people like Modonna Harris standing in line for hours to apply for benefits only to be turned away. “Everyone knows you have to get here by at least 7:30, a full hour before the office opens.” We learn about her background, her search for work, everything that led her to this point.

The authors see this work experience as a cause for hope: those they interview have worked in the past and are desperate to work again. I found the same thing when I was on welfare 40 years ago. In the final chapter Edin and Shaefer lay out a roadmap for getting people back to work and helping those who cannot work.

My only disagreement with them is their blithe statement that “reverting to the old welfare system is not the answer.” I agree that in addition to money, Aid to families with Dependent Children (AFDC) dispensed stigma and isolation. As a former AFDC recipient, I experienced both and the hopelessness that comes with them. However, I would take that stigma and isolation a thousand times over to spare my children what happened to the children we get to know in this book: chronic malnourishment, abuse by sexual predators in overcrowded households, the temptation for a tenth-grade girl when a teacher offers her food in exchange for sex. I would make the same decision I made all those years ago when I said to myself: the kids come first.

Of course, I know there’s no going back to AFDC, even though it would be better than what we have now. The voting public has been too blinded by politicians determined to demonize the poor—such a handy target! so powerless to fight back. They have also been blinded by their own comfortable lifestyle, not recognising the privilege that got them there, or, for those in a lower income bracket, their fear of falling into poverty themselves.

I do endorse the authors’ proposed solutions. However, it will take a huge groundswell of public opinion to overcome our society’s bias against helping the poor. It will take all of us speaking out.

I hope you are moved. I hope you read this book. I hope you act.