Funny Farm, by Laurie Zaleski*****

“You never know what you are capable of until the day comes wen you have to go places you hadn’t planned on going.”

Laurie Zaleski knows how to make a debut. Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life With 600 Rescue Animals has created a tremendous buzz, and all of it is deserved. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, February 22, 2022.

Laurie’s early childhood was in many ways an enviable one; her mother stayed home to raise Laurie, her brother, and her sister, and her father made enough money to hire household help and buy a couple of vacation homes, too. There was nothing they lacked for, other than physical safety. Because while her father could be warm, and loving, and generous, and funny, he could also be a monster. His reign of terror was worsened by alcohol consumption. As the beatings became uglier and more frequent, Annie, their mother, chose poverty for the children and herself over the constant terror and danger of living with their dad.

“’I almost became a nun,’ Mom would joke years later. ‘Then I met the devil…’ Annie McNulty and Richard Zaleski fell in love like tripping into an open manhole: one wrong move followed by a long dark plunge.”

There’s one searing episode Zaleski recounts, toward the end of their life with Dad, in which they are all hidden in a bedroom with the door blocked shut, and their father is sneaking up on them, commando crawling up the hallway toward them so they won’t see his shadow approaching, and he has a large knife between his teeth. It sounds like something from a Stephen King novel, doesn’t it?

And so, when Annie’s efforts to build a modest nest egg to finance their flight is uncovered, she has no other option but to leave without the money. She finds a dumpy cabin in the woods, half fallen down and in no way legally rentable, and strikes a bargain with the owner. To say that their standard of living decreases is the understatement of the year, but they make it work.

Once she has made her escape, apart from the creepy forays from an unseen enemy that occur from time to time, Annie can’t turn away anyone else, human or otherwise, that is in a dark and vulnerable place. The woods surrounding their little shack begin sprouting makeshift outbuildings; there’s a little lean-to here, and a sort-of paddock there. And it keeps growing.

Zaleski is a gifted storyteller, and she alternates her narrative from the present to the past, breaking up the nightmarish episodes of her childhood with hilarious stories, most of which are about the critters. Her writing is so nimble that I find myself repeatedly checking to see what else she’s published, because there’s just no way this can be her debut. But then, that’s what they said about Harper Lee, right?

Perhaps the most glorious aspect of this book is seeing how Annie McNulty’s can-do attitude, sterling work ethic, and positivity transformed her life and lit a path for her children. She provided them with an outstanding role model, and in return, they did everything possible for her when cancer forced her to slow down.

This book will inevitably be compared to Educated and The Glass Castle because it is a memoir of someone that has overcome horrifying challenges in childhood and emerged triumphant. But make no mistake, Zaleski’s story is in no way derivative, and likely will be held up as an example for future writers. It makes my feminist heart sing!

Highly recommended.

The Song and the Silence, by Yvette Johnson*****

TheSongandtheSilenceI was browsing the pages of Net Galley and ran across this gem of a memoir. Often when someone that isn’t famous gets an autobiography published by a major publisher, it’s a hint to the reader that the story will be riveting. Such is the case here; my many thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. You can order it now’ it comes out Tuesday, May 9.

It probably says a great deal, all by itself, that I had never heard of Booker Wright before this. I have a history degree and chose, at every possible opportunity, to take classes, both undergraduate and graduate level, that examined the Civil Rights Movement, right up until my retirement a few years ago. As a history teacher, I made a point of teaching about it even when it wasn’t part of my assigned curriculum, and I prided myself on reaching beyond what has become the standard list that most school children learned. I looked in nooks and crannies and did my best to pull down myths that cover up the heat and light of that critical time in American history, and I told my students that racism is an ongoing struggle, not something we can tidy away as a fait accompli.

But I had never heard of Booker.

Booker Wright, for those that (also) didn’t know, was the courageous Black Mississippian that stepped forward in 1965 and told his story on camera for documentary makers. He did it knowing that it was dangerous to do so, and knowing that it would probably cost him a very good job he’d had for 25 years. It was shown in a documentary that Johnson discusses, but if you want to see the clip of his remarks, here’s what he said. You may need to see it a couple of times, because he speaks rapidly and with an accent. Here is Booker, beginning with his well-known routine waiting tables at a swank local restaurant, and then saying more:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM-zG…

So it was Booker and his new-to-me story that made me want to read the DRC. Johnson opens with information from that time, but as she begins sharing her own story, discussing not only Booker but her family’s story and in particular, her own alienation from her mother, who is Booker’s daughter, I waited for the oh-no feeling. Perhaps you’ve felt it too, when reading a biography; it’s the sensation we sometimes feel when it appears that a writer is using a famous subject in order to talk about themselves, instead. I’ve had that feeling several times since I’ve been reading and reviewing, and I have news: it never happened here. Johnson’s own story is an eloquent one, and it makes Booker’s story more relevant today as we see how this violent time and place has bled through to color the lives of its descendants.

The family’s history is one of silences, and each of those estrangements and sometimes even physical disappearance is rooted in America’s racist heritage. Johnson chronicles her own privileged upbringing, the daughter of a professional football player. She went to well-funded schools where she was usually the only African-American student in class. She responded to her mother’s angry mistrust of Caucasians by pretending to herself that race was not even worth noticing.

But as children, she and her sister had played a game in which they were both white girls. They practiced tossing their tresses over their shoulders. Imagine it.

Johnson is a strong writer, and her story is mesmerizing. I had initially expected an academic treatment, something fairly dry, when I saw the title. I chose this to be the book I was going to read at bedtime because it would not excite me, expecting it to be linear and to primarily deal with aspects of the Civil Rights movement and the Jim Crow South that, while terrible, would be things that I had heard many times before. I was soon disabused of this notion. But there came a point when this story was not only moving and fascinating, but also one I didn’t want to put down. I suspect it will do the same for you.

YouTube has a number of clips regarding this topic and the documentary Johnson helped create, but here is an NPR spot on cop violence, and it contains an interview of Johnson herself from when the project was released. It’s about 20 minutes long, and I found it useful once I had read the book; reading it before you do so would likely work just as well:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xxeh…

Johnson tells Booker’s story and her own in a way that looks like effortless synthesis, and the pace never slackens. For anyone with a post-high-school literacy level, an interest in civil rights in the USA, and a beating heart, this is a must-read. Do it.