nonfiction

Book Review: Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era

I didn’t know that this would end up being such a timely read.

Civil rights are a cause that’s near and dear to my heart. Everyone deserves the full rights of citizenship in the country of their birth or the country they’ve adopted as their own, and the fact that America still hasn’t managed to get it together in this aspect and is actively trying to move backwards is a filthy stain on our collective soul. But there are people out there fighting to right these wrongs (Stacey Abrams, you are an absolute jewel!), and some of them write books about their experiences. When I heard about Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era by Jerry Mitchell (Simon & Schuster, 2020), I knew I had to read it. Bless my library for having a copy on their shelves.

During the 1960s, white supremacists decided that their right to feel special was more important than anyone’s civil rights or right to live, so instead of getting some therapy and examining why they felt that way, they decided that murder was the answer. Members of the Ku Klux Klan plotted, planned, and carried out the murders of white and black civil rights workers, along with everyday people- including children- who were just living their lives. And far, far too often, the perpetrators and the planners of these murders walked free, even when they bragged about what they’d done to everyone with functioning eardrums. Even when some of them were Christian clergy. Think about that.

Jerry Mitchell, an investigative journalist working for Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger, knew that there were plenty of wrongs that needed to be righted, so he set about unlocking the clues to the past. Interviewing family members of the victims, former and current KKK members, and anyone who had anything to do with these cases where justice wasn’t served, he began to help the state piece together legal cases against the alleged killers. It wasn’t easy; so many witnesses had already died, more were suffering from diseases of old age, and the ones who were still full of life made Mr. Mitchell acutely aware that his life was as expendable as those of their earlier victims. But with his well-honed journalist skills and a deep-seated sense of justice and integrity, with well-timed articles that brought crucial and long-buried information to light, Jerry Mitchell aided in the prosecution of some of the dirtiest murderers of the Civil Rights era.

This is really an incredible book. Mr. Mitchell’s dedication is deeply admirable, and his bravery is oftentimes both commendable and shocking. I can’t ever imagine a situation in which I would feel even remotely safe traveling to and going inside Byron de la Beckwith’s house (he was the man who murdered Medgar Evers), but Mr. Mitchell did. He repeatedly made contact with various people whose pasts were infuriating and frightening, who said disgusting things in his presence. Some of them had since reformed and expressed regret over their actions. Many had not, and yet Jerry Mitchell still persevered in order to get the information necessary to pen the articles that would change everything.

He’s quick to point out that he failed more times than he won, that there are still plenty of cold cases where justice was not served and where the families of the victims never received any kind of closure. But the cases he was instrumental in helping bring to court- the murder of Medgar Evers, the murder of the three civil rights workers portrayed in the movie Mississippi Burning, the murder of the four little girls in the 16th Street church bombing, and the murder of civil rights worker Vernon Dahmer- were high-profile, and while individual cases don’t make up for the lack of justice overall, the conviction of these killers is deeply satisfying. Mr. Mitchell tells the story of his work in these cases in a fast-paced read that will keep you racing through the pages in order to learn the final verdicts of each case and how they were reached.

An excellent book, and so timely for today. May we all be Jerry Mitchells in our pursuit of justice, every single day.

Visit Jerry Mitchell’s organization, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones

The US has a terrible past (and present) in regards to racism. Scratch the surface of just about any topic and you’ll reveal its racist roots- it’s an unfortunately truth, because things didn’t have to be things way, but we let it, and the only way to change things going forward is to confront what we’ve been and resolve not to be that again. The history of medical research leading up to the miracle of modern organ transplantation is no different, and after discovering The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones (Gallery/Jeter Publishing, 2020) in a Book Riot email, I knew I had to read it. Onto my TBR it went.

In 1968, William Tucker, a Black man from Virginia got a received a strange phone call about his brother Bruce- something about his being in the hospital, and a bizarre comment about them taking his heart. After scrambling for information that no one seemed to want to provide, William learned that Bruce had died following a head injury. The hospital had never contacted anyone from the family, despite William’s business card with his phone number being in Bruce’s wallet upon his arrival at the hospital, and stranger still, they had removed his heart and kidneys without permission in order to use them for transplants, a new and still very much experimental procedure at this time. William was horrified at this desecration of his brother’s body and contacted a lawyer.

But medical experiments (often ones that lead to groundbreaking research and treatments) have a deeply racist history in the US; the progress medical science has made has often been built on brown and Black backs and bodies, quite often without their consent. Chip Jones delves into the history of Black grave robbing by medical schools for research purposes and how that led to William Tucker’s missing organs. His case went to court, and the outcome ultimately led to a change in legislation when it comes to organ donation and consent, but the history is there and cannot be erased, nor should it be hidden. The Organ Thieves shines a light on a subject a lot of people most likely know very little about.

Organ transplants have featured heavily in the books I’ve read throughout my life. In the 80s and 90s when I was growing up, I read Why Me? by Deborah Kent (about an adopted teenager who receives a donated kidney from her biological mother) over and over again, and plowed through a ton of Lurlene McDaniel’s medical dramas for young adults, which often featured teenagers who were awaiting donated organs. And of course there was Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, and recently, Rachel Solomon’s Our Year of Maybe. But I never really knew the history of transplantation, the many failures and deaths it took to get to the place where receiving a donated organ meant a new lease on life, the difficulties doctors first had in recognizing the symptoms of rejection, and what this all meant for Black patients. They were aware of the grave robbing and knew this would have bigger implications, and unfortunately, this proved to be true. And all of this and more (such as history of the Tuskegee study) has led to the hesitancy of Black people in taking the Covid-19 vaccine. History never dies; its consequences ring throughout time like the loudest of bells.

There’s even more racist medical history that Mr. Jones doesn’t touch (the history of gynecology is utterly horrifying), but what he does cover is bad enough. The trial that covered the removal of Bruce Tucker’s organs without family consent is a complex read; the trial itself raised many questions and led to necessary changes in legislation, but at a heavy emotional cost for the Tucker family and the many others who came before them. So much of our progress as a society- maybe all of it- has been made at the expense of others.

At times, the story gets just the tiniest bit dry, but The Organ Thieves is so important that pushing on through is necessary and rewarding- you’ll be better informed, a better ally, better at knowing what shouldn’t be. If you’ve ever read or watched a medical thriller or drama and enjoyed it, or benefited from organ transplants or medical research that came from corpses dug up in the dead of night (and this is probably everyone), this is a book you should be aware of. We owe those unnamed people and Bruce Tucker that much.

Visit Chip Jones’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Broken Faith: Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr

Cults! Cults, cults, cults! This is probably my longest-running fascination. I put in for Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr (Hanover Square Press, 2020) on NetGalley but was rejected (no biggie; you win some, you lose some!), but it went onto my TBR anyway. I hadn’t heard of Word of Faith Fellowship before, so immediately I was deeply intrigued and neeeeeeeeeeeeeeded to know more!

Journalist Mitch Weiss has written a stunning exposé on the Word of Faith Fellowship, a church out of Spindale, North Carolina, that consumes every last moment of its members’ lives. You can’t just show up for a church service; you have to be invited (that alone should tip people off). WOFF is run by Jane Whaley, a charismatic, power-hungry woman who seeks to control the lives of her church members and live high on the hog on their tithes, while they struggle to give more and more. Church tactics include screaming in the faces of and beating members, even infants and small children, to release all the demons that plague them, tying them to chairs, locking them away for months at a time in what amounts to prisons on the church property, stealing members’ children, and making it nearly impossible for members to leave.

What’s worse is the local government is fully involved in protecting the church and has, for decades, turned a blind eye to the abuse of the children in the cult. Members have tried for years to get justice for the many, many ways the cult has wronged them, only to be given the runaround by the police and the local court system. Hopefully with the publication of this book, more people will be aware of the shocking manipulations of this cult and the way it controls its members and the county it’s located in.

This is an absolutely shocking book. Mitch Weiss interviewed over 100 former church members to construct this narrative, as well as seeking out court documents, including a 300+ page document that had never before been released prior to his research. Despite damning evidence of the abuse of the members children (including sexual abuse- the mentions are brief, but they’re in here, so be alert if this is a difficult subject for you to read about), the county opted to tie the hands of social services and leave the children there to be further abused. I’m not going to lie; reading this is chilling. It’s yet another account of how cheap life is here in the United States and how little the lives of everyday people matter. The odds are stacked against us all, and if you’ve got money, you’re free to do as much harm as you want to anyone you want, because money is power.

Multiple times, Weiss and Mohr illustrate, usually through the words of authorities, how difficult it is for former cult members to receive justice: cults keep such tight control over their members that when they do manage to escape, they’re often ill-prepared to live in the outside world, plagued with anxiety and PTSD, and they end up homeless and addicted to various substances as a means of coping- rending them, in the eyes of legal authorities and juries, unreliable as witnesses. And thus cults such as WOFF are allowed to carry on their dangerous, abusive tactics. Members of the church have been convicted of various forms of fraud on the church’s behalf (including unemployment fraud and mail fraud), but Jane Whaley has never been brought up on charges herself.

If reading about cults interests you, you won’t want to miss this. Jane Whaley and her sycophants are dangerous and I’m glad the floodlights are being turned onto the church. I hope this helps its victims receive justice and that more people are sympathetic to what they’ve suffered at the hands of this evil, evil institution.

Follow Mitch Weiss on Twitter here.

fiction

My Sister, the Serial Killer- Oyinkan Braithwaite

And back to the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge! One of their prompts is for a book you meant to read in 2019, and…really, that could apply to a lot of books, but the one that really stuck out in my mind was My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Doubleday Books, 2018). This book made the rounds of the blogs last year and I always wanted to read it, but the only time I came across it in the library, I was already so backed up with books that I knew I’d never get to it if I took it home at that time. So on the shelf it stayed, until my final pre-COVID-19-shutdown trip to the library, where I grabbed it and stashed it in my stack (I still have three books left to read…and like an entire library of books on my own shelves, shhhhhh).

A phone call from Korede’s beautiful younger sister Ayoola more than likely means trouble, and three times now that has proven to be true. Three bodies that Korede has helped move, three clean-ups that she’s now participated in, three dead boyfriends is the number that officially makes her sister a serial killer. But what’s a big sister to do? Protecting her little sister has always been her job…even now, when she doesn’t understand why her sister keeps killing the men she dates.

Korede takes solace in her job as a nurse, unburdening herself to a comatose patient and attempting to begin a romance with her handsome doctor co-worker Tade. Just when it seems like things are beginning to take root, Ayoola shows up at Korede’s work and it only takes one glance from Tade before his gaze is permanently fixed on Ayoola. Korede is not only bitterly hurt, but concerned for Tade’s safety. When her comatose patient awakens with full knowledge of the assistance Korede has given her sister and Tade reveals his plan to propose to Ayoola, things look dire, but there’s more than one inevitable conclusion to this dark story.

My Sister, the Serial Killer was definitely worth the wait. I loved everything about it- the setting (I have a map of the world with little magnetic ‘pins’ hanging on my wall, and I place a pin in the countries where a book I read is set. I was thrilled to be able to place one in Nigeria for this book, which brings me up to 13 different countries so far this year, not counting the US); Korede’s stoic support of her sister, even through her disapproval; Ayoola’s arrogance and narcissism- what a frustrating character!; Tade’s complete buffoonery when it comes to Ayoola; the comatose patient’s reawakening; the very premise itself! Not only is there a female serial killer, she’s young and arrogant enough to assume her sister will always be there to cover up her crimes for her. This is one fascinatingly dark story!

I had some inkling of how the story would end when I spotted the original Nigerian title in the copyright info (you can see it on Goodreads; I won’t post it here in case any of my readers are about to read this book!), and it did ultimately play out in the way I suspected it would, but it was still absolutely worth every second of the read. It’s dark, but not heavy, and it made for a surprisingly fun read, if you can call a book about a serially murdering sister fun. It would make for a fun summer beach read, if you’re lucky enough to be able to read on the beach and not, say, worry your child is going to drown the second she steps off the towel. *laughs nervously*

Have you read and enjoyed this? I’ve heard a few people say it was too dark for them; for me, it was just dark enough, the kind that made me kind of laugh at how terrible Korede’s situation was, like, “GIRL! NO! Don’t help her, just run and change your entire identity!” I’d love to hear your thoughts on this book!

Visit Oyinkan Braithwaite’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir

The Polygamist’s Daughter- Anna LeBaron

Ahh, the joy of reading on my new Kindle, the latest paperwhite version that replaces my original Kindle Keyboard, which had been giving me problems for a year or so, constantly restarting on its own out of nowhere. (#readerproblems, amirite???) This new one is lovely, and the reading experience is divine. I feel like I will miss the buttons on the side in the winter; I loved how I could keep my hands under a blanket or in my sweatshirt sleeves and still turn pages, but at least I’ll still be able to only poke a single fingertip out and still read, right? (#winterreaderproblems) While The Polygamist’s Daughter by Anna LeBaron with Leslie Wilson (Tyndale House Publishers, 2017) wasn’t the first book I’ve read on my new Kindle, the experience is still pretty novel. 🙂

Anna LeBaron, whose first name is pronounced like Anna in Disney’s Frozen, grew up as a member of a polygamous cult that broke away from the traditional LDS church. If you’ve read anything about these groups before, you’ll recognize her last name as belonging to the group depicted in Jon Krakauer’s stunning work of nonfiction, Under the Banner of Heaven . The LeBaron group has been plagued by murderous leaders and followers who are all too happy to aid them. Anna is the daughter of Ervil LeBaron, who died in prison when Anna was still young. Her father, was, of course, polygamous; Anna has over fifty siblings and barely ever spent any time with him before he died.

Her family was often on the run from authorities for one reason or another, so Anna was regularly with a few siblings in the care of adults other than her mother for long periods of time, often with less-than-spectacular results. She was horrified to learn that she’d been promised to the husband of one couple she’d been staying with (whose wife treated her terribly) as soon as she came of age, and there are some creepy grooming scenes in here. Despite being surrounded by so many people, Anna grew up feeling alone, and when her mother makes plans to send her back to the creepy grooming husband/mistreating wife couple in Mexico, Anna decides to make a break for it and it’s in living with her sister and her husband that her real life outside the cult begins.

Anna’s story is fairly typical for ones coming out of this particular cult, though she chooses not to focus on the rampant hunger that so many of the other former members say plagued their childhood. She joins a Christian church after leaving her mother, but this is presented in a way that implies it’s just part of her story; there’s no proselytizing, which I appreciated. Anna doesn’t seem to be terribly aware of the more dangerous elements of her family’s religious group, at least not when she’s younger (this changes when she moves in with her sister and her sister’s husband, and especially after tragedy strikes), which gives her an interesting perspective towards members of her group who had carried out Ervil LeBaron’s demands for murder. To her, these people were not the murderous monsters who had caused a human being’s death, but the people who loved her and cared for her during her childhood. How she was able to maintain that perspective baffled me a little bit; Anna doesn’t seem at all naive, so perhaps it’s just a matter of wanting to see the good side of the people you have left.

Not at all a bad book; Anna is obviously an intensely brave woman who has been through an enormous amount of trauma and yet managed to make a healthy life for herself on the outside. She’s a great example of resiliency and determination, if you’re needing more of that from your reading, and if you’re looking for another peek into the LeBaron group, it’s a great book for that, too.

Visit Anna LeBaron’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.