Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Association of Small Bombs

Book Cover
Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs is one of those books that is very popular with critics.  It's also one of those books that you read and know that is it incredibly well-written and has a really strong message.  It tackles huge issues in a very personal way.  I am very glad that I read it, but I don't think I will read it again because it is so profoundly sad.

The Association of Small Bombs starts with a "small" terrorist attack in New Delhi in 1996.  Two brothers are among the victims.  Their friend, Mansoor, survives with a strain in his wrist.

The book follows the brothers' parents, Mansoor and his parents, and the terrorist who committed the attack (and the progress of a terrorist in the making) over the next several years.  We see the way the parents come together and then drift apart.  The way Mansoor's parents are overprotective and then feel like they are losing their son.  The way Mansoor first feels so lucky to have survived and works hard to make the most of it, and then slowly loses that momentum.

While I found this book quite depressing, there were things that I also found very valuable in it.  I appreciated that Mahajan focused on a "smaller" terrorist act in India vs on a "major" one in the west.  Just as Americans seem to have become inured to mass shootings (which is horrifying), much of the world seems to think that terrorist attacks in certain parts of the world are totally normal.  But Mahajan shows readers that senseless violence is never normal to the people who experience it and have to deal with its consequences, no matter how regularly it may happen.  He shows how difficult it can be for parents to recover from the randomness of an act, to rethink so many decisions, to see their lives go down a completely different path than the one they had set out on themselves.  Similarly, he shows how survivors can continue to suffer even when it seems like they have minor injuries.  When you consider how many of these small bombs have detonated in the world, and how many lives they have upended, you can imagine that there are countless people whose lives have been profoundly changed by acts committed by complete strangers who don't care about them at all.

I also appreciated that Mahajan did not focus on an extremist Muslim's hatred of western influence.  He focused on an internal Indian issue - Kashmir.  This is important because so many people (*white* people, mainly) seem to think that the only victims of terrorists are westerners and that terrorists are all brown people against white people.  This is not the case.  Terrorists and their victims are of all races and beliefs and walks of life.  It may be difficult for some readers to understand the political background that informs this part of the book (I certainly had some trouble), but I don't know that it matters - what matters is that people believe in something enough to commit desperate acts in its honor.  Or they feel trapped that they have no other option.

And that was the last thing about this book that I appreciated.  It really takes you inside the mind of someone as he veers from a path of non-violence to one of extreme action.  It's difficult to see this happen, especially with a character you liked.  But it's important, too, to understand that people are motivated to actions by many different things.  It's not always a belief in extremism.  A lot of times, people feel trapped or forced into an action.  Or they feel they have no one to talk to, they have no real future.  That's not to justify committing an act of violence, but more to show that circumstances can inform our life decisions more than we are often willing to admit.

But, as I said earlier, this is a tough book to read.  It's supposed to be a tough book.  Make sure you have a chaser for it. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Detroit: An American Autopsy

Charlie LeDuff's Detroit:  An American Autopsy is one I've had on my list to read for a while, I think since I finished grad school.  As is typical for me, I bought the book on Kindle and then promptly forgot about it.  I finally read it while I was on a work trip.  I never got over my jet lag, so I stayed up late several nights in a row with Charlie LeDuff.

Detroit:  An American Autopsy is a pretty good title for what this book is about.  LeDuff is a reporter who moves back to his hometown of Detroit in the early 2000s to write for the local paper.  In his reporting and in this book, he writes about how Detroit went from being one of the biggest cities in the United States, with a population of almost 2 million people, to one of the most hollowed-out; today, it is home to less than 700,000 people.  It is one of the most rapid declines in population of a city ever.  A lot of this is due to the rise and fall of the American auto industry, but a lot of it is due to other factors as well.

If you've followed this blog for some time, or at least since the last presidential election, you know that I've been reading several books in an attempt to better understand the current state of our country and world.  I did not read Detroit for this reason specifically, but on reflection, I think it does an excellent job of explaining why someone might vote for Donald Trump.  Michigan is one of those states that used to be strongly Democratic and then swung right for Trump in this past election.  LeDuff's book gives a very compelling case as to why that might be, even though it was written in 2013.  To LeDuff, as Detroit goes, so goes America.  Detroit paralleled the country's rise and fall more than any other city, tied so closely to the auto industry.  As America rose in prominence and people bought more cars, the city went sky high, with beautiful (seriously stunning) architecture, world class museums and strong worker's rights.  Then came the 1960s and white flight.  And then came the 1980s and all the decades that followed - foreign competition in the auto industry, corruption and incompetence in government and industry, and a rapid decline in the power and influence of labor unions.  Jobs moved elsewhere.  But, as one person in the book put it, "I guess when you get down to it, it's simple... The man took his factory away, but he didn't take the people with him."

LeDuff's book is excellently written in a Sam Spade, hard-boiled detective fiction kind of fashion.  He writes in exactly the way you would expect someone from Detroit to talk - frank, no sugarcoating.  His deep love for the city and its people is obvious, but so, too, is his anger and frustration with the way its leaders keep taking and don't give anything back.  Detroit is a city that has been decimated and abandoned by those who claim to work to improve it, and LeDuff is sick of it.

While reading this book, I often wondered to myself whether LeDuff voted for Clinton or Trump in this past election.  He spends a lot of time with police and firemen and union workers who are fed up with what their jobs and lives have become.  The firemen in particular are angry because arson happens regularly in Detroit; they risk their lives for other people to get the benefit of fraudulent insurance claims.  And their anger seems very well-justified, they don't get much support from the city at all, as the city has no money.  Similarly, both of LeDuff's brothers work blue-collar jobs that pay hardly anything at all.  They struggle to support their families.  You can see very well how people in situations such as this one would be excited by a promise to Make America Great Again.  (Especially if you are able to push aside/ignore all the horrible things Trump said about anyone who is not white/male/straight, etc.)  In fact, I would say that this book made me understand a person's decision to vote for Trump and his message more than any other book I have read on the topic (or around the topic).  The desperation and frustration and anger that people feel, their depression that they'll never get out of a cycle, that no one sees or cares about their problems - it's all palpable.   "Desperation," he quotes someone saying, "feels like someone's reaching down your throat and ripping out your guts."

LeDuff has a lot of scorn and derision for the American auto industry and many people in Detroit's government (all of whom deserve derision and scorn).  And he comes across as quite cynical and jaded and rightfully angry.  For example:
When I had arrived back home the previous winter, Local 235 here was on strike.  It was a cold, bitter dispute, complete with old-school fires in the oil drums.  The unionized workers, numbering nearly two thousand at the time, lost  They gave in to deep wage cuts, in some cases from $28 an hour to $14, in exchange for keeping their jobs.  Apparently it was not enough.
In contrast, Dick Dauch, the CEO and chairman of American Axle, was given an $8.5 million bonus by his board of directors after the strike and gave assurances to the workers and the city of Hamtramck that he would keep production there.  It was lip service.
And this is where many Americans are frustrated, including the "liberal elites."  No one thinks that math is okay, but no one seems willing to actually do anything about it.

LeDuff also has a great capacity for kindness and compassion and empathy that comes through just as clearly.  He writes beautiful stories about people, he cares so much for his city, he wants so badly for the world (particularly America, and especially Detroit) to be a fairer place.

I really loved reading this book and recommend it very highly.  It focuses on Detroit, but I think it would appeal to anyone who lives in America's Rust Belt or anywhere now where people are desperate for jobs and money to come into the region.  I'll leave you with this (long-ish) quote that had me close to tears, and that I suspect will have the same effect on you:
It would be easy to lay the blame on McNeal for the circumstances in which she raised her sons.  But is she responsible for police officers with broken computers in their squad cars, firefighters with holes in their boots, ambulances that arrive late, a city that can't keep its lights on and leaves its vacant buildings to the arsonist's match, a state government that allows corpses to stack up in the morgue, multinational corporations that move away and leave poisoned fields behind, judges who let violent criminals walk the streets, school stewards who steal the children's milk money, elected officials who loot the city, automobile executives who couldn't manage a grocery store, or Wall Street gifters who destroyed the economy and left the nation's children with a burden of debt while they partied it up in Southampton?
Can she be blamed for that?
***
"I know society looks at a person like me and wants me to go away," she said.  "'Go ahead, walk in the Detroit River and disappear.'  But I can't.  I'm alive.  I need help.  But when you call for help, it seems like no one's there.  It feels like there ain't no love any more."

Are you interested in learning more about this subject?:
I put up loads of links at the end of my reviews on Strangers in their Own Land and The Unwinding.

It is tangentially related, but this Freakonomics podcast episode "No Hollywood Ending for the Visual-Effects Industry" is excellent to get an understanding of how cities/states/countries fight each other through tax breaks for companies, which usually ends up with shareholders winning and taxpayers (and anything funded by taxpayers) losing.

Planet Money's podcast episode "Mexico's Front Seat in the Global Auto Industry" is also worth a listen.

Michael Moore's movie Roger and Me is about his hometown of Flint, MI (currently home to a massive lead-in-the-water crisis that the local government lied about and the state government has basically washed its hands of).  Here's the trailer, you can also watch the full movie online if you do a search:

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

Kij Johnson Cover Art
I read Kij Johnson's The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe with my feminist science fiction book club, and it's the first book I've read that made me really love being in a book club.  I'm not very good at book clubs because I don't like reading books because I have to read them.  But feminist science fiction is a pretty great space, so it's not hard to get excited about reading for each meeting.  Also, the women in the club are so cool.

Anyway, onto the book!  I really enjoyed The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe when I read it, but it was only after our book club meeting that I realized on just how many levels it is fantastically feminist.  For such a slim volume (about 165 pages), it really packs a punch.  Especially when you compare it to its inspiration, HP Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which I tried to read prior to reading this one, and just could NOT get through.

If I had read the entirety of Lovecraft's book, I probably would have even more thoroughly appreciated Johnson's version of it.  But I would say I read enough of Lovecraft to know that I didn't want to read any more.  Where Lovecraft seems to have no real focus except in introducing as many bizarre characters and species as possible, Johnson gives readers a more internal focus on Vellitt Boe herself.  While she is not particularly introspective, we learn enough about her to want to know even more about her.

Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women's college in a dream-world.  One of her students has run away with someone from "the real world," and Vellitt must go bring her student back.  She embarks (with zero drama) on this quest on her own, knowing that it could take a very long time and will probably be super-dangerous.  But Vellitt is someone who does what's right, and so she hops to it.

This is a short book, so I don't want to give a lot away on the plot points.  But a few things were really great and came up in our book club and really made me appreciate the story even more:

1.  Vellitt is middle-aged.  She's a middle-aged adventure heroine!  You do not find those around very often at all, and I just love that making Vellitt middle-aged and female is in itself a completely feminist way of setting up this story.  She is aware that she used to be super-attractive and that she used her charms to get her way and that, being female, her attractiveness lessens with age.  But she doesn't really miss her past, she is happy with who she is.  There's also this whole interplay with a former lover who does not look like he's aged at all, and the way they look at each other and how Vellitt reflects upon him and their past relationship is just brilliant.

2.  Vellitt is "ethnic."  Ok, ok, I admit I TOTALLY did not catch this when I was reading the book.  Ironically, the two POC in the book club defaulted to thinking Vellitt was white, whereas everyone in the book club who was white was really quick to catch onto the fact that Vellitt had skin "the color of mud" and hair she wore in braids.  Oops.  I don't think the race component in this book is as strong as it could have been, considering the author pointed out at the end that she wrote it partially to counteract the racism in Lovecraft's book.  I feel like if I missed it, it was pretty subtle, but maybe I am just not as attentive a reader as I thought.  ALSO, I would say that, based on that description, the cover of this book feels a little white-washed.  Maybe that is gray hair, but it's definitely not in braids.

3.  The girl who ran away from school is amazing.  She doesn't play a huge part, and, seeing as she's a beautiful college student who ran away with a boy, you'd think she'd be pretty flighty and lame.  But she is not.  She's strong and straight-forward and everything that is great.

4.  The setting.  Vellitt Boe's world is capricious and mercurial and does not obey the laws of physics.  We don't get a ton of detail about the world because, well, the book is 165 pages long.  But what we do get is fascinating.  For example, the sky is never the same color, it seems to roil and boil all the time.  There are exactly 79 stars in the sky.  There are gods, and the gods are not very nice.  While trying to make my way through Lovecraft's book, I felt like he just kept going ON AND ON with no point at all.  While reading Johnson's book, I felt none of that.  I am not sure why because really, many of the plot points are the same and Vellitt goes on essentially the same journey as was laid out previously.  But I think a lot of it has to do with the way Johnson describes the setting and gives us a little background on the characters that Vellitt encounters.

So, this book!  It's great!  It's not even very long but so great!  I am not sure if it is a great first foray into fantasy and science fiction as it is very dream-like and many characters that show up seem to disappear and then not matter at all to the plot.  But if you are ok with that and want to read something that is awesomely feminist but subtly so, then I highly recommend it.  And it won't take too long to read, either :-)


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The One Hundred Nights of Hero, by Isabel Greenberg

Isabel Greenberg
I adored Isabel Greenberg's The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, so as soon as I heard about her new book The One Hundred Nights of Hero, I put it on hold at the library.  And this book was just what I needed.  It's all about women being amazing, about the power of stories, about the importance of resisting, even in the face of inevitable failure, and so much more.

 I debated whether I should review this book or not because it's one of those books that I just really loved because it was kind and beautiful.  However, The One Hundred Nights of Hero tackles some really big topics in a gloriously feminist way.  While The Encyclopedia of Early Earth was complex in its layering of stories within stories, the stories themselves were not super complicated (that I remember) and the story was centered on a man seeking love.  The One Hundred Nights of Hero is centered on two women in love.  Cherry is married to an imbecile who challenges his friend to seduce her in 100 nights.  His friend agrees, and is pretty clear that if seduction doesn't work, force will.  Cherry and her love, Hero, come up with a plan to distract the nefarious villain with stories each night.  But not just any stories, stories about women and the power of knowledge and the importance of choice. 


In none of these stories is there a happy ending of "Girl meets boy, girl marries boy, they live happily ever after."  There are stories of love and how beautiful a thing it can be, but Greenberg always stresses that the ability of a woman to choose her fate is equally, if not more, important.  Some of the stories end happily because women find ways to live independently.  Many of them end sadly because the women featured in them do not fit neatly into the strict definitions that patriarchal societies have set for them.

That makes it sound as though this is a melancholy and depressing book, but it is not that at all.  It's absolutely amazing.  There is so much humor, so much kindness and friendship and loyalty, and glorious sisterhood.  Also, the illustrations are beautiful.  And then, of course, there are the stories.

It's an excellent, gorgeous book, and I intend to splurge and buy some Isabel Greenberg for myself for my birthday this year - she's absolutely worth having on your keeper shelf.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Dispatches from Dystopia, by Kate Brown

I heard about Kate Brown's Dispatches from Dystopia:  Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten on NPR's book concierge.  It's a series of essays about "the very human and sometimes very fraught ways we come to understand a particular place, its people, and its history."  In this slim volume (excluding the notes, it is only 150 pages long), Brown goes to Chernobyl and Seattle and many places in between, trying to understand how humans form a sense of place.  She specifically chooses places that are often forgotten or left behind, talks to people who stayed behind when everyone else moved on.

This book was a little different than what I expected, though I am not sure what exactly I expected.  It is really beautifully and empathetically written, though Brown herself has more of a role in the essays than I expected her to.  She acknowledges this at the very beginning, saying that it is difficult for her to be a third party observer when she is in the midst of the story herself.  So instead of talking about the places and the people themselves, she talks about her interactions with the people and places she visits.  In this way, Kate Brown reminds me of Rebecca Solnit.

I really enjoyed this book, mostly because it gives a new perspective on many different places.  Very real to me was the chapter on Seattle's Panama Hotel, where many Japanese-Americans left their belongings before they were sent to internment camps during World War II.  Brown talks about how some words were used over others to make the whole thing seem more palatable, how people were taken away quietly and away from others so that no one had to see what they had brought to bear:
White Seattleites in February 1942 voted overwhelmingly for the Japanese Americans' removal.  Imagine their reaction if Japanese American deportees had left their possessions in plain sight: rain-soaked laundry dangling from clotheslines, produce rotting on fruit stands, goods in shop windows fading in the sun.  The unrepressed possessions of suddenly absent fellow citizens would have told a story starkly divergent from newspaper accounts of "evacuation," safety, national security, and inevitable fealty to race.  The basement full of belongings underscores the myth of what was euphemistically called "evacuation," a term implying benevolence, a federal government seeking to remove Japanese Americans for their own safety.  Like the deportations - indeed, like the deportees - the stockpile was meant to be forgotten.  To me, the Panama's storage room of locked-away possessions served as an icon for the quiet banishment of Japanese Americans from American society.
Much of Brown's book revolves around multiple ways of looking at either the same scene or the same situation and acknowledging the different biases or assumptions that get people to those viewpoints.  For example, she describes how American scientists looked at the impact of radiation on people by first studying the environment and what the minimum exposure level of a person was to an environment; Soviet scientists looked at people, saw the symptoms, and made diagnoses based on the person, not the environment.  The approaches reached different conclusions and led to different pros and cons.  The American method has now encroached on how we view almost all environmental disasters and impacts - upon individuals, not upon a whole system.

One of my favorite things about this book was the way Brown insists that we change our perspective on people who live their lives differently than we do.  She visits Chernobyl expecting to see so many horrors, but she sees that some people do still live there.  She visits another town, Pripyat, that has since been abandoned because of a nuclear explosion but that was really quite a beautiful, idyllic place to live when things were going well.  Meaning, just because people lived in the Soviet Union, that doesn't mean they were all unhappy and miserable all the time.  They had good lives, too.

Brown's last chapter takes her to Elgin, Illinois, a town not so far from where I grew up.   She tells a story that is now familiar to many of us that grew up in America's heartland, the steel belt turned rust belt, the towns that many feel have been left behind as jobs and people and money go to the cities.  But Brown also tells the flip side of the story, of how those towns often made decisions that hurt themselves in the long run, choosing short-term profits and cost-cutting over longer-term investment.  When workers at the main employer in Elgin went on strike to fight for better wages, the company response was fierce and immediate.  "For the following century, the company suffered no more strikes, and Elgin leaders enticed other manufacturers to town with tax breaks, land grants, and arguments that Elgin was 'a poor field for the agitator.'" 

And so, even though unemployment was low, people continued to work well past the age of retirement, and 40% of married women continued to work after marrying and having children to support their families.  And then the factory left, anyway, to find even cheaper labor.  Brown talks about how, for such a prosperous country, America has many towns that look abandoned and left behind, almost ghost-like.  "These are the muted smells and sounds of amputated careers and arrested bank accounts.  Looking at the chain of churches and shops displacing one another in quick succession, feeling something between depression and despair, I think about E.P. Thompson's question - who will rescue these places from the enormous condescension of posterity?"

In some ways, Dispatches from Dystopia has the same central premise as Strangers in their Own Land - we need to give people who feel forgotten and left behind a platform from which to speak and feel valued and empowered, rather than just telling their stories from our perspectives.  But perhaps because Kate Brown made the decision to go to multiple places, to draw parallels between towns in America and towns in the Communist bloc, the American approach to science and free will vs the Soviet approach, it felt much wider-reaching.  So much of what we believe is based on justifying acts, making ourselves feel better, like using the word "evacuation" instead of "imprisonment."  Talking about "diversity" instead of "equality."  And it's only when we really push ourselves to make those connections, draw the parallels, that we can fully acknowledge what we've done and what we can do going forward.

Are you interested in learning more about this subject?:
I put up loads of links at the end of my reviews on Strangers in their Own Land and The Unwinding.

If you would like to watch a documentary about the women who still live in the Chernobyl zone, check out The Babushkas of Chernobyl.

While there, you can listen to Holly Morris' TED Talk about the women and what happy, peaceful lives they are living, contrary to what all of us would generally believe.

Holly Morris' story about the Babushkas is also included in this episode of the TED Radio Hour, Toxic.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review-itas: Books that confused me

by Yoon Ha Lee
Guys, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee confused me so much that I cannot even explain the cover of this book to you.  Does it fit with the story?  I don't know.  I mean, the story takes place in space, so that part is accurate.  But what is the spiky thing that dominates the image?  I don't know.

As far as I can tell, Ninefox Gambit is set in a civilization that really likes order.  There appears to be a massive mathematical algorithm (the "calendar") that oversees every tiny thing, especially in the military.  Possibly people exist outside of the military, but it is hard to tell.  There is also a very rigid caste system in place, with different groups of people going into different areas of study and conforming to very specific traits.  The main character, Cheris, is in the military leading her team and somehow goes against the calendar.  This means she's in trouble and she's given a very big, basically impossible task to go kill some heretics, for which she asks for help from this undead ghost who won every battle he ever fought, except he also turned traitor and got an obscene number of people killed.

There was a lot in this book that I did not understand.  This book is like all my fears and feelings of intimidation about science fiction coming to fruition.  Once I got to the end and things started moving a little faster and became more people-focused than calendar-focused (I still cannot grasp this calendar system, and it DRIVES ME CRAZY), I got more into it.  And it certainly ends on a high note that bodes well for the series to follow.  So I eventually got the high-level plot, but I could tell you nothing about the setting.

by Nalo Hopkinson
After my appalling showing in 2016 of reading only four books off my TBR list, I was determined to do better in 2017.  (To be fair, I set a pretty low bar for myself, so I feel confident I can beat it.)  I read and enjoyed Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber, so I decided to give Sister Mine a go.  Many of the same elements that I loved in Midnight Robber are present here - a strong cultural identity, humor, and fantastic female characters at the center.  Sister Mine is often compared to American Gods or Anansi Gods because it is about a family of demigods.  But whereas Neil Gaiman's book is almost entirely about men, Hopkinson's puts women very much at the center of the story.  She plays with gender, sexuality, and many other themes while she wreaks havoc with the lives of both humans and gods.

I listened to Sister Mine on audio, and the narrator is excellent.  I don't listen to many audiobooks any more, but I was pretty much instantly drawn into this one.  I enjoyed many things about this story, but parts of it were just a bit too out there for me, particularly towards the end when things became very convoluted to me.  I really liked many of the characters in this book, but with about two hours to go, I was just ready for the book to end.  There were plot points that came up that didn't make a ton of sense to me or fit into the rest of the story, and then there was this whole section at the end that I was just... I don't know what was happening.  I feel like maybe if I were reading a physical copy of the book instead of listening to an audiobook, it would have been easier for me to understand what was happening.  Or maybe I'm just so confused by the real world that fantastical and science fiction worlds go too far for me.  Regardless, this was a lighter book than Midnight Robber for sure, with humor and pretty great family dynamics.  So if you want to give Hopkinson a try but don't want all the heavy stuff, this could be a good one to start with.  But I wouldn't say it's as strong as Midnight Robber

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson
I took advantage of having a big chunk of free time off work between Christmas and New Year's to tackle a big, meaty book.  I saw Isabel Wilkerson speak during the Chicago Humanities Festival after the election in November, and I had a feeling that her book would be a great one for me to read to start the new year.

The Warmth of Other Suns is about the Great Migration, the movement of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North over several decades in the 20th century.  Wilkerson conducted hundreds of interviews.  Her book compiles many people's stories, though she focuses on three people who left various areas of the South at different times and went to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to start new lives.

This book is excellent.  It is 540 pages of personal stories, which probably sounds like a lot, but it is not.  It feels like you are in the same room as these people as they tell you about their lives, the decisions they made, the regrets they have, the people they knew.  It's almost like a gigantic, written version of This American Life.

Like many people, I am struggling to come to grips with the way the world seems to be moving backwards to tribalism, distrust, and fear.  Reading Wilkerson's book was empowering.  When she came to speak at the Humanities Festival, she said something that I keep going back to.  I am paraphrasing, but the gist of it was, "The lesson of the Great Migration is the power of an individual choice.  They freed themselves."

Often, when reading books about minorities in the US, the general trend of stories is the same.  People who are different show up.  The people who are already there become angry.  They treat the newcomers badly (sometimes, really really badly).  The newcomers fight for their rights.  Sometimes they win.  It's an important story to tell because it happens so consistently, probably everywhere, but definitely in the United States.  But it's also just depressing and disheartening.  People are so frightened by anything that is different, no matter how superficial that difference might be, or no matter how ridiculous that fear is.  And they fight back in terrifying, brutal ways.

 But even against all that, a backdrop of hate and threats and physical violence, people fight.  And that's what was so, so wonderful about this book.  Even people with very little of their own, barely scraping by and with no rights of their own - they resisted and they fought and they made the world a more accepting and welcoming and equal place for all of us.  As Wilkerson said, "The Great Migration... was a step in freeing not just the people who fled, but the country whose mountains they crossed... It was, if nothing else, an affirmation of the power of an individual decision, however powerless the individual might appear on the surface."

A few snapshots from this book really stood out to me:
1.  Ida Mae Gladney coming to Chicago in the 1930s and realizing that she had the opportunity and the right to vote and that her vote would be heard and counted.  She had never even bothered trying to vote before.  Many, many years later, she would vote for Barack Obama for Illinois state senator.

2.  Robert Foster's desperate search for a motel to spend the night on his drive to his new life in Los Angeles.  He went from motel to motel and was denied a room at every single one.  Finally, he broke down and told one couple that he was a veteran, that he was a physician, that he meant no harm to anyone and just wanted to sleep.  They still refused.

3.  The story of a man who worked with the NAACP, was locked up in a mental institution, and then escaped with the help of a coordinated effort that had him in a coffin and traveling across state lines in different hearses.

4.  The store clerk who owned a dog and taught that dog many tricks.  One trick was for the clerk to ask the dog if he'd rather be black or dead.  The dog was trained to respond by rolling over and playing dead.

There were many more stories about oppression and resistance, the times people bowed to authority and the times they defied it.  The many ways that people faced indignities and swallowed the insults, turned the other cheek, and then came back to fight another round.  The consequences of leaving behind family and friends to start a new life.  The consequences of working long, hard hours to make a better life for a family that you rarely get to see.  The consequences of moving from the rural south to the industrial north.

I don't think I've done a good job of describing why this book is so moving.  But it's a huge book, and it covers so much!  It's hard to cover all of that in one post.  All I can say is that it is an excellent story of how much progress we've made and the cost of that progress, not only for the country as a whole but for so many individual people.  And it serves as an important reminder that individual decisions matter and can make a difference in the world.