(Book Review) The Only Good Indians

the only good indiansThe Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones  (Mild spoilers ahead)

During the Indian Wars, Philip Sheridan, an army officer, was quoted as saying “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” That terrible saying was later picked up by Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are.”

Stephen Graham Jones makes a nod to that horrible history in the title of his new novel, The Only Good Indians. The novel centers on a group of four friends who commit a transgression against tribal rules and nature while on a hunting trip just before Thanksgiving and, ten years later, are made to pay for it by one of the victims of their hunt. Basically, a young, pregnant elk who they shot on land reserved for the elders is coming back to get them. Animal lovers, there are a couple of parts in this book that are going to be hard for you.

I thought that the first half of this novel was nearly perfect. Jones establishes the haunting of Lewis, one of the aforementioned friends, in a way that, like The Turn of the Screw, has the reader (and Lewis) questioning if he is just losing his grip on reality. There are some terrifying, hard to stomach images, but they stem from accidents that are really pretty mundane. The result is a highly atmospheric, tense, and downright scary ghost story.

Along with the scary bits, I think Jones also does a great job developing his characters. Lewis has a rich inner life, which builds that uncertainty over whether he is being haunted or not. Meanwhile, the two main female characters in this first half: Lewis’s wife, Peta, and coworker, Shaney, take up less of the narrative,  but there are hints of well-rounded, interesting characters beyond how they relate to Lewis himself.

And, there was some fun, odd humor in the mix as well. One of my favorite moments came when Lewis is trying to figure out what is happening to him and ends up making himself a grilled cheese, after contemplating something that reminded him of gross cheese. It is such an weird, vivid moment:

“At the kitchen table he stands before the elk bundle—the hairy burrito—for maybe thirty seconds, finally pushes a finger into it. It’s mushy and rough at the same time, smells like some soft cheese that was on the table at a party once, that he knew better than to eat.

‘Cheese,’ though. Now he’s thinking cheese.

It’ll wreck his digestion, but, figuring that’s the least of his concerns right now, he makes a grilled cheese for breakfast…” (87).

At other moments, the humor comes from the headlines Lewis writes in his head about his day-to-day life. For example, after he cleans up the kitchen: “the headline scrolling across the back of his forehead: INDIAN MAN FIRST IN HISTORY TO PICK UP AFTER HIMSELF” (88).

In the second half, the book loses steam. It continues with more of the story focusing on Lewis’s remaining friends, and dipping into the consciousness of the young elk. I found this second half less tense and therefore less scary. I could see an argument that this portion of the book brings resolution to the plot that began ten years before, but I think in widening the scope of the story, the horror is diluted and the writing gets less intimate and engaging. Even still, the first half of this book includes images and writing that will stick with me for a long time. It was an excellent read. If you have a large TBR pile going, I think this book would be great to pull out on a blustery day in late Fall. The setting around Thanksgiving time lends itself to the scary atmosphere.

Further Resources:

Live Stream of Author Event at the Tattered Cover

Women’s Suffrage Books to Read for the Centennial and Election Resources for 2020

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Me at a march August 26th, 2019 to kick off the Women’s Suffrage Centennial.

On August 18th, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified by Tennessee, the last state that was needed to take the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment” across the finish line. On August 26th, 1920, it became the law of the land: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Summer 2020 was meant to be full of celebrations, lectures, and marches, many of which have moved online because of the pandemic (see Digital Resources), but I have been really grateful that the House Museum Book Club that I am part of has kept going over Zoom. This year’s theme was women’s suffrage and many of the books have been great. I have also been checking out books from my local library. Here are my favorites, in case you also want to brush up on your suffrage history.

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Image from National Parks Service. Silent Sentinels picketing outside the White House to pressure Woodrow Wilson to act on suffrage.

  • Why They Marched: The Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote by Susan Ware. I particularly appreciate how this book includes women of color, working-class women, and Anti-Suffs in the history of women’s suffrage. Often, the history of racism and classism in the suffrage movement is skimmed over and Ware does a wonderful job of acknowledging that history and also illustrating how black and working-class women were important to the movement.
  • The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss cinematically tells the story of the fight to get the 19th Amendment ratified in Tennessee, including how the last vote was tipped by a letter to a young state senator from his mother. This story also gets into great detail about the tensions between the two arms of the suffrage movement led by Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt.
  • The Women’s Suffrage Movement (Penguin Classics) includes primary documents from the movement from Seneca Falls forward. Reading history books is a great way to learn about the details and nuances of suffrage history, but reading texts written by the key figures in that history can help build a better depth of understanding and context.
  • Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?: Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and the Fight for the Right to Vote by Tina Cassidy is a fabulous biography of Alice Paul and her prolonged conflict with President Woodrow Wilson. Paul was such a firecracker and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about how she got her start with the British suffragettes as well as her “militant” fight for suffrage in the U.S. She was a tiny, athletic Quaker and a fascinating character.
  • Miss Paul and the President: The Creative Campaign for Women’s Right to Vote by Dean Robbins takes that history of Alice Paul and Woodrow Wilson and breaks it down for younger readers. It is a cute picture book version of the history for any young readers you have learning with you.
  • Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for Their Rights by Mikki Kendall is a graphic novel that provides a complicated overview of women’s history globally and includes a section on the suffrage movement that does a great job of dealing with the issues around race in that history.

There is so much good content out there on women’s suffrage; this is just a few highlights. If Why They Marched gets you interested in Ida B. Wells, you could do a whole deep dive on her. There is a ton of great history online about suffrage in different regions, because the struggle for the vote looked very different in the west than it did in the south. Spend some time reading and you’ll always find that there is even more to learn.

Digital Resources

If you are looking for more information, activities, or events around the Women’s Suffrage Centennial, I think your first stop should be checking with your local history center or League of Women Voters, if you have them. I think these resources are also wonderful:

Vote This Year.

“To the wrongs that need resistance, To the right that needs assistance, To the future in the distance, Give yourselves.”  —Carrie Chapman Catt

suffrage over silence pie

Source: Suffrage Over Silence

These celebrations are not happening in a vacuum, however; 2020 is an election year and one in which the president is already trying to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the results for no truth-based reason. Do your feminist foremothers and Civil Rights heroes (<3 John Lewis) proud and make sure you and those in your circle are registered to vote and vote. Do not procrastinate, either. Vote early if you can. If you are voting by mail, give your sweet ballot plenty of time to get to the election board. Do your research on local elections. Be smart. Be educated. Be a participant.

There are plenty of resources that can help you figure out what you need to do this election. Vote.org and Suffrage Over Silence include information on getting registered to vote and receiving a ballot in each state. Ballotpedia is a wonderful tool for learning about what is on your ballot, with information from both sides of the debate on the ballot issues. This can be really helpful, because sometimes the language on those ballot issues is confusing and makes it hard to parse what you’re actually voting for or against.

You can call your senator and ask them to support the HEROES Act, which, in addition to continuing economic support in response to COVID-19, includes “$3.6 billion in election funding to expand vote by mail and safe in-person voting locations and $25 billion in funding for the United States Postal Service to help protect this election.” While you’re on the line, you could also discuss restoring the Voting Rights Act. The House passed a bill meant to do that in December and recently moved to have it renamed after the late, great Rep. John R. Lewis, but the bill has been held hostage by the Senate, led by Mitch McConnell (who is up for reelection this year, btw). If we cannot all vote and do so safely, we do not have the democracy that we so cherish. If voter turnout scares you, then maybe elected office is not for you.

If you are interested in the ongoing fight against voter suppression, I cannot recommend enough the book One Person, No Vote by Dr. Carol Anderson. It should make you so mad, but it is an incredibly detailed and clear picture of how voter suppression is still happening.

(Book Review) This Is My America by Kim Johnson

This Is My AmericaThis Is My America by Kim Johnson

This Is My America reminds me of if you crossed The Heartbeats of Wing Jones with The Hate U Give with Just Mercy. At the center of the story are two murder mysteries. While seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont is consumed by getting Innocence X (clearly a stand-in for The Innocence Project) to take up the appeal of her father, a wrongfully-convicted man on death row, her brother Jamal ends up the primary suspect in the murder of their classmate and his sort-of girlfriend, Angela. In order to prove the innocence of the men in her family, Tracy has to uncover an ugly truth that Angela stumbled on—the one that likely got her killed. There’s also a love triangle in this book for readers who are into that sort of thing (not me), but even romance aside, This Is My America is a thought-provoking page-turner that young adult readers and adults can both enjoy.

Back in June, I watched a panel from the Juneteenth Book Fest called “Capturing the Moment: What it Means to Write Black Stories Right Now.” A point that stuck with me, made by Angie Thomas if I’m remembering correctly, is that there are a lot of books out right now for young people that include elements about white supremacy and police brutality, but these books also have a lot more to say about Black people’s lives and experiences and so it is reductive to only focus on the parts relevant to current events. For example, in The Hate U Give, Starr is really into her sneakers. There are elements that focus on Black joy and family life that should not be overlooked.

This Is My America directly engages with many topics that connect to the broader theme that Black Lives Matter. Tracy teaches workshops on knowing your rights and what to do when you get pulled over. Although Johnson changes their names, she references cases of people such as Kalief Browder. The Klan ends up being a large part of the latter half of the novel, whereas the first half focuses a lot on the racism involved with the death penalty. There are many important issues for young people to think about as they read this book: police brutality, capital punishment, intergenerational trauma, how White people can cope with racist violence in their family’s history, and being a better ally. There are also prominent themes about courage, the moral responsibility to speak up, friendship, and family. Plus, the story features really sweet family moments, particularly between Jamal and his little sister Corinne. And there’s a murder mystery involving student journalists and teen girls acting like Nancy Drew. It’s a great, compelling book that I highly recommend.

(Book Review) Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century

dorothy dayDorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph 

Servant of God Dorothy Day is a difficult figure to pin down, both in Catholic culture and in American history more generally. Raised a-religious in a working-class family, as a young woman, she ran with a hard-partying group of writers and had both an abortion and a daughter “out of wedlock.” Then, she converted to Catholicism, a decision that was mystifying to her family, friends, and her daughter’s father. Day became a prominent voice speaking out for the rights of workers and for the poor, and founded the Catholic Worker. Arrested for protesting with suffragists outside the White House, Day never voted. She was a tough critic of the government, consumerism, the Vietnam War, and also of the Church and its establishment.

Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily. -Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day was long considered a longshot for colonization, but in 2000, she was named a “Servant of God” and an inquiry into her sainthood was opened by the Archdiocese of New York. (Crux: If canonized, Dorothy Day would be a saint for a ‘polarized’ world).  She has also been name-checked by Pope Francis alongside Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example of American morality. I think she’s an incredibly interesting figure for our moment in the church and in American public life. Dorothy Day had a devoted interest in many of the issues that we find ourselves dealing—or failing to deal—with this year, including poverty, segregation, and homelessness.

Loughery and Randolph’s biography starts with Day’s final arrest while protesting with Cesar Chavez, then goes back to the beginning of her life, following her turbulent story through its many turns, drawing on Day’s own writing as a source of both information and analysis.

Like Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, I found this biography incredibly dense and difficult to get through. If you are interested in Day’s life and her message, however, I do not think that you can find a better source than this book. The authors do an excellent job of getting into the details of Day’s life that are often hard to find in her own writing. They use her writing, however, to provide insight into how Day reflected on her life and the issues that mattered to her. What I like best about this biography is that the authors frame it with the paradox that Day’s life can present. Bishop Barron often talks about the both/and of Catholicism and I think this biography explores how Day could seem contradictory, but usually, that tension stemmed from her seeking for God and how better to serve him and other people. The portrait of her commitment to justice and the Gospels is as beautiful as it is difficult.

Setting Boundaries Between Kids and Social Media

Social Media and ChildrenWe have a birth plan. The bassinet is assembled. The freezer is stocked. Julio and I have checked off many of the items on our nesting to-do list. This weekend, we negotiated what our policy will be about sharing our daughter on social media.

A year ago, when we talked about the future, our position was firmly no pictures of her face on social media platforms. At all. We planned to send pictures to our families and friends, but not share them elsewhere. The first problem that I see with such a strict plan is how to navigate other people sharing your child online. I am not confrontational by nature, often to my own detriment. I have a hard time setting boundaries; it’s actually something I have been working on in the last two years. Julio has no problem telling people no, but I sometimes get nervous that he won’t do so softly enough. It’s complicated, right?

Now, we’re in a different camp. As the pandemic has made everyone feel more isolated, I have seen the happiness that sharing life moments has brought to people online. And we’re excited. We have yet to get a good look at this girl’s face in an ultrasound, so when she finally makes her big debut, well, Julio’s going to want to print postcards.

But, here’s the thing, there are so many problems that can stem from sharing images of children on social media. Put plainly, from most to least horrifying, they are: pedophiles, invasion of privacy, and the embarrassment factor. I want to explore each of these areas, but before I do, an important disclaimer: I am not coming at this from a place of judgment of you or your parenting decisions.

First, the pedophiles. If this sounds like an inflated threat to you, I recommend that you listen to the CBC podcast Hunting Warhead (trigger warning: child pornography and rape). This deeply upsetting series follows detectives and journalists as they try to catch the mastermind behind a ring of child pornography sites. One of the most shocking aspects of the series was how the users of these sites would take photos that may not seem at all sexual, download them, and circulate them. Like, your profile picture, which is publicly available. It’s chilling. And it escalates. Really, no image of your child that is not behind a privacy wall is safe. And even then, if you have 1,000 contacts on social media that you may or may not know well–how do you know that one of them is not involved in using and sharing child pornography? Having worked in a corrections setting, I can tell you, people who do such things are not branded with a scarlet letter.

Next, invasion of privacy. A baby does not have any idea of privacy, but around age five, children start to develop a sense of their own identity and with it a need for privacy. Psychologists worry that sharing too much about your child online can cause them to feel like they do not have control over this developing autonomy. Furthermore, Stacey Steinberg, an associate director for the Center on Children and Families at University of Florida Levin College of Law, points out that the digital content parents put out about their children can be tied to that child for years to come thanks to internet algorithms, face recognition technology, etc. Think about how protective we are of our own privacy online. Imagine that you had another person pumping tons of content about you onto the internet and you had no say or no control.

The more that the world moves online, the more we see the lasting impact a person’s digital footprint can have. Protecting a child’s digital presence could be even more important ten years from now. Fatherly explains how “sharenting” exposes children to “surveillance capitalism” which extracts as much data about them as it can before they can consent or opt out: “Sharenting tells them what your child looks like, when she was born, what she likes to do, when she hits her developmental milestones and more. These platforms pursue a business model predicated on knowing users – perhaps more deeply than they know themselves – and using that knowledge to their own ends.”

Finally, embarrassment. This one is tied closely to the previous point. Julio expects this girl to be the third Latina president of the United States someday, and we just can’t have something we posted when she was a child come back to embarrass her on her way to the top. So much that we think is cute or harmless could be considered embarrassing or shameful twenty years from now. We just don’t know. We don’t know what she might really regret us sharing about her life, so we are going to try to keep that digital footprint small until she can have a say. And then we will teach her about guarding her own privacy.

Again, I am not judging anyone’s choices. I myself have changed in this area. When she was young, I shared pictures of my sister. Later, when I thought about it more, I locked many of them down. Now, Julio and I have a decision to make in regards to this new person.

Here’s where we landed: no images of our daughter’s face on public-facing social media (including profile pictures and banner images). Period. Not on our accounts or anyone else’s. And when we do share, we will share sparingly. Honestly, to me, it feels like a compromise. And I know it’s going to be hard.

Further Reading

Why I Put My Dog’s Photo on Social Media, but Not My Son’s

Five Reasons Not to Post About Your Child on Social Media

What’s the harm in posting about our kids on social media?

What to know before posting a photo of your kids on social media

Do Parents Invade Children’s Privacy When They Post Photos Online?

Think twice about posting photos of your kid on Facebook

The Fatherly Guide to Keeping Kids Safe Online

(Book Review) Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases

41zmchStXKL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman

Although the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) got a boost in popularity when they promised President-elect Trump that they would “see him in court” if he tried to enact campaign promises that contradicted the Bill of Rights, the organization has been hard at work for 100 years, fighting to protect our rights. Many of their cases have helped shape our contemporary understanding of First Amendment Rights, Civil Rights, and more.

Fight of the Century, a new edited collection from Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman features a treasury of authors reflecting on particular ACLU cases. Each chapter prefaces the author’s work with a brief overview of the case, its context, and its impact. Through the combination of these prefaces and the following reflections, I learned a lot about cases that I had never heard of, or had only just heard of. I also appreciated the personal reflections on cases that I knew a great deal about, such as Yaa Gyasi’s thoughts on her own education in relationship to Brown v Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

Other chapters that I especially enjoyed include “Victory Formation” by Brit Bennett, which examines Colin Kaepernick in connection to West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)which found that public schools could not force students to participate in patriotic rituals; “How the First Amendment Finally Got Its Wings” by Timothy Egan, which takes up New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), a crucial freedom of the press case; and “Loving” by Aleksandar Hemon, which reflects on Loving v Virginia (1967) from the improbable context of the author’s childhood in Bosnia and Herzegovia, where “mixed marriages” were common before the war.

Finally, a major vote in favor of this collection is that it includes a dissenting voice. That, after all, is part of the whole vibe of the ACLU, and they do not consider themselves above criticism. Scott Turow, a lifelong ACLU supporter, writes a chapter that staunchly disagrees with the ACLU’s stance in Buckley v Valeo (1976) and subsequent campaign finance cases. He does not pull his punches, but the chapter is included along with those that openly praise ACLU legal work. The collection also examines cases in which the ACLU defended the First Amendment rights of those who they disagreed with, such as the American Nazi Party. As Chabon and Waldman write in their introduction, “To understand the vital role that the ACLU plays in American society requires a nuanced understanding of the absolute value of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, of the right to due process and equal justice under the law, even—again, especially—when those rights protect people we find abhorrent or speech that offends us.” There may be court cases in the collection that you oppose, but the ACLU has spent the last 100 years defending your right to do so.

(Book Review) A Century of Votes for Women

41DxaxdZY9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A Century of Votes for Women: American Elections Since Suffrage by Christina Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder

We are less than two months away from the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States.* I’ve been doing a lot of reading about suffrage history this year.  So far, I have most enjoyed Why They Marched and The Woman’s Hour. This week, I picked up A Century of Votes for Women, which is a history of elections since the passage of the 19th Amendment.

A Century of Votes for Women: American Elections since Suffrage is the kind of book I imagine would be invaluable if I were working on a research project about women as voters, but as a casual read it was not an especially compelling or fun read.

The book breaks down the last century into a handful of distinct time periods: 1920-1936, the 1940s and 50s, 1964-1976, the 1980s and 90s, and the twenty-first century. In each chapter, the authors present an overview of the major, national political trends and shifts during the time period, then break down the data on voter turnout based on factors in women’s lives such as gender norms, family, economics, and education. Each chapter ends with a section that reinforces that women are not a voting bloc and explains how women’s voting choices were influenced by race, age, education, marriage, family, work,  and the politics of place. This layout makes navigating each chapter easy. It also clearly marks this book as an academic text. It is short on narrative, heavy on data.

I found the most interesting part of each chapter to be the sections that examined political trends and the changes in the lives of women during the designated time period. I found that I got the most out of them. For the other sections, the authors are basically tracking the gradual shift from voter turnout for women slightly trailing men to women turning out more than men (the Gender Gap) and the gradual shift of women voters from largely supporting the Republican party to mostly voting for Democrats. If that is a story that fascinates you, this book is for you. Otherwise, you might read the intro and conclusion and skim the rest. It is a valuable book for all the information it compiles, it is just not a great read.

*I think it’s important to acknowledge that the history of the suffrage movement in the U.S. includes an unfortunate streak of racism, as suffragists from the south were openly racist and many suffragists from the north felt they had to make concessions in order to get the vote. Although the 19th Amendment technically enfranchised all women, in practice women of color were still kept from voting until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And voter suppression is still alive and well today. The fight did not end in 1920—not by a long shot.

(Book Review) The Anna Karenina Fix by Viv Groskop

The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop.

51HLXmtEHZL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_When I was in high school and still a literary snob, I went through a big Russian literature phase. I read Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Nabokov like that was a perfectly normal thing for a 16-year-old to do for fun. I still remember Crime and Punishment fondly as one of my best reading experiences. It should come as no surprise that when I went to college, I went through a short, intense period of loneliness. One day during my first week, not sure what else to do with myself, I took a walk to the campus bookstore and bought a copy of Alain De Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life and sat under a tree and read it. I felt so much better afterward. (Any other INFJs in the house?) To this day, whenever I see that cover on my bookshelf, I feel content. It’s not even that good of a book, really.

I tell you of these strange passions for two reasons:

  1. To establish myself as right in the target demographic for The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature, seeing as I am both a fan of Russian literature and of the particular genre of light literary criticism mixed with self-help or some other popular genre. See also: Madame Bovary’s Ovaries and Kafka’s Soup
  2. To present an example of how each chapter of Groskop’s book unfolds.

Groskop is British, but spent years of her life studying Russian language and literature, including a period during her youth living in Russia. In each chapter, she presents an anecdote or two from her personal experiences as an example of some peculiarity in Russian as a way to segue to a great work of Russian literature, how it exemplifies that Russian quirk, and some (usually kind of grim) lesson about life that we can take from the work and/or its author. For example, she explains the use of patronymics and diminutives in Russian as a way into discussing Tolstoy and what we can learn from the major questions Anna Karenina asks about life. In another chapter, she writes about the hazing ritual of making new Russian language students read Pushkin as an introduction to writing about the feud between Nabokov and his pal Edmund Wilson over the translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, as an introduction to the life lesson, which I have forgotten because the story about Nabokov was so funny that I laughed aloud and read it to Julio.

I think this pattern works well in most chapters. I enjoyed learning about some of the idiosyncrasies that Groskop discusses, but other times I found myself rushing through them to get to the literature (as in the Dostoyevsky chapter). In most cases, I did not find the life lesson from the novel particularly compelling (although the Anna Karenina chapter, the book’s first, was very strong), but the analysis is a fun read nonetheless. Again, it’s literary criticism lite. This is the kind of book meant for book-lovers who want to love books with another book-lover. It’s sort of educational, but really it’s a love letter to reading. This book, like those cited above, is not a great book, but it is a fun read and it offers something akin to companionship to lonely bookworms. It is a kindred spirit wrapped in library vellum.

All of those faults and qualities make this a book right for a particular reader. If you are not that reader, I’d pass on it. BUT, I argue that if you are that type of reader, now is an especially good time to read this book. The Anna Karenina Fix was published in 2018 and it sat on my For Later Shelf on the library website for two years. I have been working through my paused holds before the baby comes, and I got this book during my first curbside pickup from my local library. (If you are reading this in the post-COVID future, what do libraries look like in your time?) Even after putting it off for two years, I was not sure if I really wanted to read it, but I am glad that I did. This book was a treat for a cooped-up bookworm, and I think that the grim life lessons from Russian literature are especially poignant because we are in such strange, uncertain, often awful times. Now is a natural time to think about big questions and to read thick books. This quick, friendly read is a nice introduction to doing so.

I’ve added Doctor Zhivago, Eugene Onegin, The Master and the Margarita, and Dead Souls to my reading list.

(Book Review) Dear Justyce by Nic Stone

dear justyce coverIn a previous blog, I provided some discussion questions for Dear Martin by Nic Stone. This September, a sequel/companion novel is set to come out called Dear Justyce

In this book, Justyce’s classmate, Quan, writes letters to him from jail. Justyce gave the notebook of letters he wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Quan and Quan reads them, writing back to Justyce about some of the letters while also telling him his own story. Through Justyce, Stone tells the story of a young man who did not have some of the advantages Justyce did, although he had plenty of the smarts, and examines how easy it is for Quan to get into serious trouble.

I found Dear Justyce especially moving because of the young men who I have met during my time as a corrections librarian who very well could have been Quan. There have been a number of guys whose stories just break my heart, because of how much they had to offer, but how much was stacked against them. For some of them, it seems like they never even had a chance. Quan’s father is in prison. His mother is abused by a series of boyfriends, the last of whom steals her EBT card and disappears for long enough stretches that Quan and his siblings start to starve. Quan turns to stealing to feed them. Before he knows it, even as he keeps his grades up at school, he gets involved with a gang for the community and protection it offers. And things escalate from there (I won’t spoil it).

The letters from Quan to Justyce are sometimes very direct about the intersection of racism and juvenile justice. Quan points out several times that there is a big disparity between the sentences Black kids get and the sentences White kids get for much more serious charges. Other times, such as when Quan gets involved with the gang, the story lets the reader ponder Quan’s choices and the larger societal issues they reflect.

One of the aspects of Dear Martin that I found especially productive was how Nic Stone uses Justyce’s letters and his experiences to examine different facets of systemic racism. Dear Justyce has a much narrower focus and because of this I think it works well as a companion to Dear Martin, but may not stand as well on its own.

I was not so sold on the novel’s turn to legal drama as Justyce gets involved in Quan’s court case, but it works as a primer on how plea bargaining works (or doesn’t) and how the justice system fails kids like Quan.

 

Professional Reader
Reviews Published

Solidarity: Catholic Social Teaching 101

Pope2CongressThis topic is kind of adjacent to my usual scope for this blog, but over the last few weeks, it has been on my heart a lot, so I decided to give it a go.

Solidarity is a pillar of Catholic social teaching and one that I take both comfort in and motivation from. I have so much access to information about injustice and suffering in the world that even beginning to know how I can help can feel overwhelming. Then, I remember solidarity and it helps me come up with some concrete things to do.

Let’s walk through an example: I have always whole-heartedly opposed the death penalty, but for much of my life it felt like there was nothing I could do about ending it. Last year, my friend Kate and I saw a Facebook event for a meeting hosted by the ACLU to organize around ending capital punishment in our state. We went, discussed the issue, filled out postcards, received training on how to talk to legislators, and drafted letters to the editors of local newspapers. Later, I sent my letter to a local paper, which published it. The death penalty was repealed in our state this year. The actions Kate and I took were barely a drop in the ocean of effort that it took to achieve the goal, but it was an act of solidarity. Why?

What is solidarity?

In the Catholic tradition, solidarity means working for the common good by working for justice and peace: “The Catholic social teaching principle of Solidarity is about recognising others as our brothers and sisters and actively working for their good.” (Caritas.org)

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops writes, “Loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world. At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace. Pope Paul VI taught that ‘if you want peace, work for justice.’ The Gospel calls us to be peacemakers. Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.”

Solidarity has kind of become a buzzword, however, and acts of solidarity can be reduced to merely performative statements of togetherness. St. John Paul II, who learned about solidarity firsthand during the Polish resistance, cautioned against this shallow treatment of solidarity as fellow-feeling:

“[Solidarity] is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”(St. John Paul II, On Social Concern [Sollicitudo rei Socialis. . . ], no. 38)

Similar to how Bishop Robert Barron reminds us that love is a verb not a feeling in his Pentecost homily about the church and racial justice (embedded/linked below), solidarity is perhaps best considered an action, not an emotion. Remember, it is often stated as standing in solidarity or walking in solidarity.

Solidarity in the Catholic tradition is really about working to build the type of community we are called to build—bringing the Kingdom of God to where we live. The USCCB reminds us that we must always consider the poor and the marginalized and work for their good:

“We have to move from our devotion to independence, through an understanding of interdependence, to a commitment to human solidarity. That challenge must find its realization in the kind of community we build among us. Love implies concern for all – especially the poor – and a continued search for those social and economic structures that permit everyone to share in a community that is a part of a redeemed creation (Rom 8:21-23).” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All)

And when we talk about “their good,” that means their ability to “have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

We see this teaching acted upon, for example, when the USCCB issues statements opposing violent immigration policies, budgets that forget the poor, or racial injustice.

How is solidarity different from charity?

When exploring ways to show solidarity for a particular group or movement, donations to charity often come up. Although donating to charity can be an act of solidarity, charity and solidarity are distinct from each other. (I’m talking about charity here as in the act of giving charity, not charity the form of Christian love, although the two are linked.)

Whereas charity is a gift that is meant to help another, it does not necessarily have to connect to systems of power. For example, I can donate food to a food bank and that certainly can help feed the hungry, but it does not address the root cause that is poverty. Solidarity, on the other hand, is aimed at working to build a better system so that another person isn’t hungry to begin with.

What does Solidarity look like in practice?

So, back to why I find solidarity both comforting and motivating—there are a lot of things, big and small, that we can all do each day as acts of solidarity. We may be called to solidarity by current events and as a lifelong practice. Most often, an act of solidarity means working to help a person or group that is somehow being marginalized, oppressed, and/or exploited. Awareness around privilege is really helpful in becoming more attuned to ways that you can practice solidarity. (For how not to make solidarity about you being good jump down to subsidiarity below.)

Solidarity can mean turning up at a protest to support people who are fighting for their rights.

Solidarity can mean writing letters or making phone calls to people in power, advocating for changes.

Solidarity can mean speaking up when someone says something bullying, or racist, or sexist in your hearing.

Solidarity can mean listening when someone tells you about how they have been hurt by prejudice or injustice.

Solidarity can mean spending your money at local businesses and those run by women or people of color.

Image from @bulldogcatholics on Instagram

Image from @bulldogcatholics

Solidarity can mean enjoying, sharing, and promoting art created by marginalized groups. (And I do not mean appropriating it.)

Solidarity can mean not eating meat as a way to stand with the poor who are disproportionately impacted by climate change.

Solidarity can mean limiting one’s participation in fast fashion, an industry that exploits poor workers.

And so on.

In short, solidarity means putting your love for others into action in a way that pushes back on systems or practices that threaten the common good.

Solidarity can start with retraining your mind so that your image of the common good includes people who do not look like, think like, or live like you do. 

But don’t end there.

What is subsidiarity and how is it connected?

Another pillar of Catholic social teaching is subsidiarity, which helps keep solidarity from turning into a colonizing effort. In essence, subsidiarity holds that an issue should be handled by the most local authority capable of tackling it. In practice, it can help prevent charitable efforts from swooping in and taking the power to effect change away from already marginalized groups. While solidarity lends its support, subsidiarity aims to make sure the stakeholders maintain their agency.

“Solidarity ensures all people are taken care of while subsidiarity prevents people from becoming faceless objects of charity. When both principles flourish together, they result in a more balanced, effective, and personal bond of charity” (Vogt 122).

Go do it

The church is far from perfect and there are certainly areas where we could stand to improve in enacting Christ’s love. I think, however, that solidarity is a particularly strong point in the interaction between Catholics and the world. It shines through especially well in the saints, such as St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Gertrude Stein, and Servant of God Dorothy Day, who famously said “If you have two coats you have stolen one from the poor” (perhaps riffing on Luke 3:11). Recent popes including Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis have also drawn attention to the importance of this social teaching in calling the faithful to do better in serving the poor and marginalized and in caring for our planet. So, let’s get out there and do it, people!

Works Cited/Further Reading

Vogt, Brandon. Saints and Social Justice: A Guide to Changing the World. Our Sunday Visitor, 2013.

USCCB What We Believe: Solidarity

Caritas New Zealand: Solidarity

12 Ways You Can Be an Activist Without Going to a Protest

A bishop in El Paso kneeled in prayer for George Floyd. Two days later, Pope Francis called

Bishop Barron’s Pentecost 2020 homily: