nonfiction

Book Review: Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

I first became aware of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Knopf Publishing Group, 2020) when I was searching NetGalley for new books. My request for it wasn’t accepted (you win some, you lose some!), but I knew 100% that I had to read this. After reading their previous book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, they’re an auto-read for me. So much eye-opening information, presented in a way that keeps me turning the pages.

The American Dream is increasingly unavailable to anyone but the very rich; hard work and a determined attitude don’t count for much when your brain is primed for addiction and chaos, and there are no resources to help pull you out. In Tightrope, Kristof and WuDunn shine a light on communities in America that, through poor choices aided or directly caused by policy failure, have fallen through the cracks and are barely surviving. Some aren’t surviving at all. The pain travels through the generations; when parents suffer, their children don’t thrive either, and when they’re raised in chaos, they pass that along to their own children, and the damage works its way down the line. Poverty, violence, drug addiction, dropping out of school, lack of jobs, lack of opportunity, prison records, these aren’t merely personal choices (although some of them start out as such); they’re systemic failures that our society and our government have failed to address and at times have purposefully made worse.

Kristof and WuDunn don’t just point out problems, they offer solutions (ones that will summarily be ignored by anyone with power in order to further their own short-term gains, as our country is wont to do). The US is chock-full of problems, but they’re solvable problems, if only we stop looking at things like hunger and lack of available jobs as a personal choice.

It’s a damning book, and I fear that the people who need to read it will ignore it. Look at this quote:

‘Children in America today are 55 percent more likely to die than kids in other affluent countries, according to a peer-reviewed study in Health Affairs. “The U.S. is the most dangerous of wealthy, democratic countries in the world for children,” said Dr. Ashish Thakrar of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the lead author of the study. If the United States had simply improved at the same rate as other advanced countries, 600,000 children’s lives would have been saved, Thakrar calculates. If America had the same mortality rates as the average in the rest of the rich world, 21,000 kids’ lives would be saved each year. Because we failed to modernize our health system the way our peer countries did, we lose fifty-eight children a day.’

Fifty-eight kids a day die because we’ve deemed them not worthy as saving. That’s over THREE of my daughter’s first grade classes. PER. DAY. We throw fifty-eight kids in the garbage every single day, and who knows how many adults, because it’s more important that insurance companies make money than those children get a chance to grow up. If you wouldn’t be okay with this for your own kids, or for yourself, you shouldn’t be okay with it for anyone else.

Why do some people thrive while others sink to the bottom? How do some folks escape difficult circumstances while others struggle for generations? The writing team covers this, as well as the resources necessary for everyone to thrive. In order for America to prosper, we can’t leave vast swathes of the population behind; America is only strong when Americans- ALL OF THEM- are strong, and the authors illustrate this well in heartbreaking example after example.

Kristof and WuDunn focus mainly on the community where Kristof grew up, in Yamhill, Oregon (famously the hometown of Beverly Cleary; she writes about it in her autobiography, A Girl from Yamhill), but they do expand their look to other states that have been hard-hit by the policies of the last fifty years. It’s a devastating look, a hard one that far too many aren’t interested in taking at the US, but one that absolutely needs to be taken. It’s not without hope, but it’s sobering, and if you’re in the US, you can’t afford to miss this book.

Read Nicholas Kristof’s writing at the New York Times here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Follow Sheryl WuDunn on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

I had Nomandland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (W.W. Norton Company, 2018) on my Goodreads TBR, but when I requested it from the library as an ebook, it was for a reading challenge. I ended up reading something different for that prompt, because this took about four months to come in, but my goodness, was it worth the wait. If you haven’t read this book and you’re American, put it on your TBR right this very second, because this is required reading for every single American. (And if you’re not American, well, it may be eye-opening about what we’re driving our elderly population towards.)

Jessica Bruder follows a group of Americans, mostly at or nearing retirement age, who no longer reside in homes or apartments. They live in cars, vans, campers, refurbished buses, because they can no longer afford a stable life. They live off of disability, Social Security, jobs that pay minimum wage or barely above it, working through illness, pain, chronic medical conditions with little-to-no treatment. They sleep in sleeping bags, covered in multiple blankets, in temperatures that dip down into the teens at night or remain in the 90’s, while snow and ice pile up around their tires, or the occupants in each vehicle swelter. They eat whatever they can cook in their mobile housing, over campfires, sourced from food pantries, given to them by friends. They do their best to survive and keep an optimistic attitude, but their lives are nothing to envy.

These seniors (or close to it) work managing park campsites and harvesting sugar beets and fulfilling orders at Amazon in punishing twelve-to-fifteen hour shifts and sometimes more, in jobs that hand out painkillers for free because their workforce isn’t able to keep up without them. They travel from job to job around the country, sleeping in store parking lots, moving on from campsites after their time has expired, doing whatever they can to stay alive. It’s not always enough.

God. This book is depressing, but it’s important. Take a good look around you the next time you see an RV or a large van or a car that seems a little overly full of stuff. There’s a good chance that there’s someone living in there full-time. (We’ve got one of these at our local library. It breaks my heart every time I see their vehicle parked there. It gets *cold* here in the winter…) And while some families hit the road full-time by choice, these people are forced into it. It seems like one of the main causes is divorce, which turn many people’s stable financial situation into something untenable, but job loss and medical bills are also a major culprit into forcing people into these nomadic situations. If you think you’re immune, you’re wrong. Plenty of the people in this book had worked at the same job for decades, only to be downsized and then discover that it’s impossible to get a new job that pays a livable wage at 59 years old.

Jessica Bruder shines a light on a community that lives in the shadows in the US. Its members don’t like to think of themselves as homeless- they prefer to think of themselves as free from the trappings of life that tie them down- but homeless is absolutely what they are, and at a time in their lives when they should be able to relax, spend time with their family and friends and gradchildren, and take care of their health problems. Instead, they’re shivering through cold nights, trading tips about how to cook on hotplates in a van, and working with broken limbs that they can’t afford to get treated. What on earth are we doing as a country? How is it that we’re so quick to dispose of people???

Nomadland is a shocking, eye-opening, terrifying exposé. It’s one that shows that no matter how safe we think we are, we’re one illness, one spouse’s affair, one job loss away from living in our car. Ms. Bruder must have some serious strength of character to follow the people she profiled in the story for so long; I’m not sure I could have held up emotionally through the end. This book is a page-turner; it’s one of the scariest books I’ve read in a very, very long time, and despite that, I can’t recommend it highly enough. We all need to be aware of what life is like for those who fall through the cracks, because it could be just about any one of us. (If you’re white, that is, and Ms. Bruder does go into explanations for the reasons why there aren’t that many people of color living like this. That doesn’t mean that life for people of color of these ages are necessarily any better or easier, just that living full-time vehicles hasn’t shown to be a solution for these groups in any large number.)

If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts; if you haven’t yet read Nomadland, put it on your TBR and come back after you’ve read it, because your thoughts matter to me as well. Everyone should read this book.

Visit Jessica Bruder’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl- Timothy Egan

Chalk up another book challenge win (and another book that I might not have picked up on my own. I definitely would have been interested, had I come across it without this challenge, but I probably would’ve thought, “That looks great, but I’ve got too many other things to read, and who knows, it might be boring…”). One of the prompts for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge is to read a book about a natural disaster. As natural disasters tend to freak me out, I checked their list of suggestions first and figured I could handle The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan (Mariner Books, 2006), which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2006. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote about those who fled the Dust Bowl; Timothy Egan writes about those who stayed behind.

I read The Grapes of Wrath in high school and…loved it seems like a poor choice of words for a novel so bleak and full of suffering, but it was my introduction to Steinbeck and made me a lifelong fan. I don’t remember learning *that* much about the Dust Bowl, other than it was terrible and people starved, so The Worst Hard Time was a full-on education for me.

The American Dust Bowl was an area of the Great Plains that was stripped of most all vegetation and aggressively overfarmed; combined with what was later discovered to be a normal period of drought for the area, this led to massive dust storms that swept the area for years throughout the 1930’s. Nothing grew and livestock died; people choked and suffered from dust pneumonia; poverty was rampant and families starved. If anything, the suffering in The Grapes of Wrath isn’t painted grimly enough. Timothy Egan recounts one of the worst climate disasters in the US to date in this in-depth work of nonfiction.

The picture is stark. Babies and the elderly suffer and die in the dozens of dust storms that rage through the area each month. The dust, whipped by sixty mile-per-hour winds, blinds some folks permanently. Dust coats every surface, and cleaning just means things will need to be cleaned again hours later. Drifts of dust, parched topsoil depleted from areas farther away, pile up to the rooftops of some houses, and the dust travels all the way to Washington DC at times, coating that city with a mere taste of what the residents of the Dust Bowl experience daily. A worse situation could hardly be imagined.

Alongside the climatic devastation, the Great Depression was raging on and almost no one had an income. People bartered for what they could, made shoes out of tires and clothes out of onion bags and the stripped fabric from broken down cars. They pickled tumbleweed and canned rabbit meat. Hospitals had to postpone operations; their surgical rooms were impossible to keep clean. April 14th, 1935, a day known as Black Sunday, marked the biggest storm of all, two hundred miles wide with 300,000 tons of dirt- more than twice as much as had been dug out of the Panama Canal- whipping through the air.

However grim you’ve pictured the history of the Dust Bowl, it’s worse, and Timothy Egan pulls no punches in showing exactly how. Nor does he stray from showcasing the immense hubris on display by both government and civilians when it came to taking responsibility for and dealing with this crisis. Settlers refused to believe that this crisis was man-made (so, so much of this book parallels our current climate crisis that it’s almost chilling to read); Roosevelt is devastated to learn that the Homestead Act of 1862 was an abject failure and led directly to the creation of the Dust Bowl; many farmers scorned the new farming techniques taught to them in order to even have a slight chance of saving what was left of the soil (spoiler alert: the area never completely recovered). This book is a clear warning signal of how man can easily alter his environment to utterly devastating permanent effects.

While not a simple read, it’s an easy one; Mr. Egan’s writing style lends to his prose flowing as easily as any novel, though the subject matter often sounds nearly like something straight out of Stephen King. The Worst Hard Time is a great book to read if you’re looking for that Read Harder Challenge prompt, but it’s also great if you’re interested in history, in poverty and hunger (I was pleased to see this book recommended on the reading list at Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger), in climate or weather, or if you enjoy nonfiction in general. It’s an incredible read, a living history whose consequences we still live with today, and I’m glad it’s one I included in my reading life this year.

Visit Timothy Egan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.