Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson*****

Isabel Wilkerson is the author of the groundbreaking, bestselling Pulitzer winner, The Warmth of Other Suns, and when I read it, I understood that from then forward, I would read anything Wilkerson published. Here it is, and you must read it. You may want to put on a pair of oven mitts when you do, because it is hot enough to scorch your fingertips; Wilkerson doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. It’s been perched in the top ten of every bestseller list since its August release, and you don’t want to miss out on it.

Wilkerson’s thesis is that Black people in the U.S. occupy, and have always occupied, the lowest position within our social and economic ranks; social class is changeable, but caste is fixed. She compares their positions to the Dalit, better known as the Untouchables, the lowest rung of the lowest caste in India, and to Jews during the Holocaust. If this seems like overkill to you, get this book and read it carefully. This writer is relentless when she seeks to prove a point. She documents, documents, and documents again. She turns all the stones, and nothing is left.

Her evidence is organized by eight key commonalities, which she refers to as “Pillars” of caste. These are aspects of society that are unchanging and that define the positions of those born into them. (She recognizes that there are other races in the US that suffer, but places Black people at the bottom of the order, and so this is where her focus is.) The more I read, the more convinced I am. This is not metaphor or hyperbole. These are literal truths, and by the time she is done, I am convinced that the US is guiltier than Germany, because Germany turned it around, whereas the US is still in denial.

The Warmth of Other Suns is absorbing and easy to read, its style near to narrative nonfiction. In contrast, Caste is brutally frank. Though Wilkerson salts her narrative with relatively minor personal vignettes, they don’t make it easier to read; if anything, they make it hurt worse. (The airline attendant that does his level best to send her to the back of the plane, even though she has a first class ticket; the plumber that assumes she is hired help rather than the homeowner; the man attending the conference at which she is to speak that asks her to freshen his drink…)

I find this material so painful that I realize I am avoiding my review copy in favor of gentler reads, and then I know I have to step it up. This is too important; there’s been too much rug-sweeping in this nation already, and we won’t change if we don’t recognize the reality in which we live. I resolve to read one chapter a day. One chapter, and then I can move to more congenial literature. By the time I reach the end notes, I feel as if I have witnessed a natural disaster, a typhoon perhaps, or an immense, life-ruining earthquake. I’ve never run from books about race in the United States, but having the truth condensed and presented as it is here has to change the way we think. African-American readers likely won’t be much surprised, and many may feel vindicated in the resentments that have built over the years. But I cannot imagine anyone reading this book and then forgetting what’s in it.

Black lives matter, my friends. They matter just as much as anyone else’s. If you are more concerned about broken windows than about generation after generation of Americans whose potential has been stunted and whose contributions have been minimized, then you need this book. If you know that what’s been happening to men and women of color in the USA is dead wrong but you have difficulty forming cogent arguments when you talk with others, you need this book. If you speak and read English and you have a pulse, you need this book. What more does it take?  Information is the root of social change. Here it is.

The Water Diviner and Other Stories, byRuvanee Pietersz Vilhauer****

ALT.FINAL_The WaterI read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and University of Iowa Press. This distinctive collection is for sale now.

All told there are fifteen stories, all of them featuring Sinhalese Sri Lankans, most of them expatriates that have moved to the United States.  Before commencing I knew very little about the culture of this small island country, apart from its having been colonized by Britain earlier in its history. I still know very little, but this collection is an approachable way to introduce oneself, in addition to being well crafted fiction.

Several of the stories are dark, dealing with the racism and ignorance with which immigrants are often greeted. The angriest of the stories is “A Burglary On Quarry,” in which a student is accused of burglary by her well-to-do, bigoted landlord who doesn’t want to face the obvious perpetrator: her own son.  It reads like a manifesto, and it makes me want to pump my fist and yell, “Tell it!”

This, however, is something none of the characters in these stories would do, apart from the privileged Caucasian American in “Accident.”  David nearly comes to great harm while visiting his new wife’s homeland, largely due to his own obliviousness; it hasn’t occurred to him that he himself might be deemed unacceptable for his race and nation of origin, having lived all of his life as an affluent member of the dominant culture. He is from Texas, and he’s drunk, and he doesn’t even try to understand discretion or subtext. As his wife’s neighbors ogle him suspiciously and the police consider that he may have caused an auto accident for which he is not responsible, he continues to assure his wife—in English—that everything is just fine. He says nothing quietly, ever, and it takes a political connection on the part of his wife’s relatives to extricate him from the hard place he doesn’t know he’s in.

Other entries are also bittersweet, and “Sonny’s Last Game” stands out as one of these. However, “Leisure” literally made me laugh out loud. Well, guffaw, actually: “Cutex! Who does she think she is!”

The last entry, “Hello My Dear”, is both funny and bittersweet, as Prema is faced with the question of whether an email from a stranger is a scam or the real deal.

I enjoyed this collection tremendously and would read Vilhauer again in a heartbeat.

Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, by Saloma Miller Furlong*****

bonnetstringsA few years ago I read and reviewed this author’s first memoir, Why I Left the Amish. Her reasons were compelling, some of them inherent in the Amish tradition, others probably atypical of most Amish families, but all together they provided a powerful impetus, that little voice inside all but the dullest that cries out, “Man the life boats! Save yourself!” I understood, having read it, why Furlong would choose to bail, but I was left with other questions, mostly regarding a gap between the end of the book and the author’s biographical blurb. Happily, I heard from her a couple of months ago; she had written a sequel, and this is it. She volunteered kindly to send it in my direction for a chance to read and review, and it is just as riveting as the first.

The first volume dealt with the horrifying domestic abuse within her family, and the failure of the church to deal with it. Furlong wondered whether she might have remained Amish had she not dreaded her home life, or at least many aspects of it, so tremendously.

It also dealt with her independent nature and intellectual curiosity (my own terms, not hers). Why would the Amish so persistently seek to stamp out the desire of some of its own members to seek higher education, I had to wonder. Would they not want Amish nurses, professors, plumbers, electricians?

The e-mail I received from the author mentioned a PBS miniseries in which she was featured, The Amish followed by The Amish: Shunned. Once I finished reading Bonnet Strings, I decided to hold my review until I could view these productions, some four hours all told. Between what she tells us in this second memoir and what is said in the miniseries, I understand. Not that I know what it is like to be Amish; far from it. But I see now why they set such strict parameters in order to preserve their culture.

The metaphor the Amish use for the individual is that of a grain of wheat. The church is a loaf of bread, and one person can’t be in that loaf without crushing out their individual needs and desires. I have heard of other cultures abroad that take this approach—the Chinese come to mind—but for a quarter million such people to be here in the USA with its John Wayne culture of independence is remarkable indeed, and it is clear to me now that to permit its members to put even one toe into the world of freedom, independence, and yes, greater risk, is to invite its youth to leave and not return. But ninety percent of Amish children grow up to be Amish. They stay Amish. And I really think the twin practices of shunning those—even one’s own children or yikes, parents!—when they leave, combined with the standing offer of reconciliation upon return, is the powerful engine that sucks many of those that have departed back into the fold.

Furlong has been independent and living in Burlington, Vermont, has built new friendships and has a serious boyfriend, but she goes back to the Amish when they come for her. She recounts how it is almost as if a mental switch has been thrown, and she suddenly no longer feels she has a choice. Until I watched the documentaries to accompany the poignant and visceral material in her memoir, I thought this was crazy. But the combination of religion, family, and the fact that there is another language, that old German dialect spoken only by the Amish, weaves a powerful spell. It is as if a voice says, “We know you in a way no one else can.” Saloma goes back to live in her old home town once. Others go back multiple times before they are able to tear away. Actually, our author made a pretty good job of it compared to others that tear themselves away, and in the end is happier that she has returned once in order to put to rest her own doubts, her own questions about whether, once out of her father’s home, she could become a successful Amish woman.

Her memoir is punctuated with memories scribed by her husband, David Furlong, who was a part of her journey out into the world. He provides a different perspective, perhaps closer to what the reader might have seen.

In reading the memoir, it occurred to me that the practice of shunning creates selective breeding. If those that become independent are allowed to return to the community at will and be welcomed, allowed to mix and mingle, then before you know it, they would intermarry. And though science has still not teased apart the mystery of which qualities in us are inbred, and which are the result of how we are raised, the stunning level of passivity among those that remain in the community is remarkable. And it is those truly passive folk that have babies, babies, and more babies. I suspect that this is how they have managed to not only not die out, as those of us on the outside would have anticipated, but thrive and grow.

With a thoughtful memoir such as Bonnet Strings, I like to read the foreword and introduction, read the book, then go back and reread both of them again. The producer of the documentaries wrote the foreword, and she mentioned that Saloma has taken the time—some thirty years–to let her experiences gel. The memoir, therefore, is not written for a therapeutic purpose, but rather to provide an account, both of the strengths and tenacity within the Amish culture, and of the resilience required of those that simply cannot find a place within it.

Because there is no middle ground. There probably never will be.

This articulate, engaging memoir is available for purchase right now. This is a great way to spend your own holiday weekend, and it would also make a terrific gift. Fascinating!

Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights, by Susan Straight *****

blacker than a thousand

Susan Straight is one of my favorite authors. I wish she had written more, but I suppose if you want quality, sometimes you have to sacrifice quantity.

As the parent of a young Black man, I recognize the fictional character Darnell’s dilemma: how do you play it straight while keeping it real (in other words, without playing the White man’s game to where you find yourself betraying some of your family and old loyalties)? How do you keep your friends from the neighborhood where you grew up and went to school, without landing your butt in jail right along with them? Remember that the US “justice” system is far from colorblind.

Darnell is tangible and believable. I came away feeling as if I knew him.

This is made all the more brilliant by the fact that Straight is a Caucasian woman. How dare she write in the first person as a Black man? Yet she carries it off, in my opinion, with grace and dignity. Her bio says that she grew up in an area in Riverside, California that was almost exclusively Black, so it may be that she considers herself culturally Black as well. That would explain a great deal.

Regardless of your political views, though, on race and everything else, this is strong writing, a character portrayed with immediacy and dignity. I like the way this woman writes, every single time.