Chicano history: My family’s history

In late May, my older sister sent me a box of old family photographs that included a surprise: our mother’s 7th-grade graduation certificate.

The document dated June 30, 1942, attested that my mom, Theresa Flores, had completed her studies in California’s Monterey County. That’s as far as she went with her formal education; my dad, Catarino Rede, made it as far as 8th grade in New Mexico. Both had eight siblings. As World War II raged, both dropped out to help support their migrant farmworker families as they followed seasonal crops in western states.

Mom’s certificate arrived as the spring term was winding down at Portland State University and college students across the nation were preparing for commencement ceremonies. Holding that thin paper in my hands moved me to my core, a piece of history come alive.

I was auditing an undergraduate class on “Chicano/a History, 1900-present” and I was immersed in the study of social, cultural, political, economic, and historical forces that have shaped the development of people of Mexican heritage in the United States over the last 120 years.

For several weeks, my classmates and I had delved into the events and policies that have colored the experiences of those born in Mexico (like three of my four grandparents), of those born in the U.S. (like my parents), and of those who had immigrated to this country in the past 40 to 50 years (including several million people who gained legal status as a result of federal legislation in the 1980s).

Many of my classmates were fellow Mexican Americans and most were half my age or younger. Together, we were learning, belatedly and to our great dismay, just how badly our parents and previous generations had been treated by government officials, employers and school systems. I don’t exaggerate when I say our people were exploited, marginalized and discriminated against in ways that were just as racist as those used to oppress Native Americans and Black Americans.

I’ll spare the details, but the historical record is flush with descriptions of:

— Widespread violence against Mexicans in the American Southwest, including one massacre in 1918 that saw white ranchers. federal soldiers and Texas Rangers execute 15 unarmed men and boys outside the village of Provenir, near my paternal grandfather’s birthplace in Parma, Texas,

— Efforts to recruit Mexican workers to Chicago and nearby Gary, Indiana, to work in the steel factories after World War I, only to see these same men rounded up and deported a decade later in the 1930s when their labor was no longer needed.

— The Zoot Suit Riots that broke out in Los Angeles in June 1943, when U.S. sailors assaulted young pachucos in downtown L.A. and then went into eastside neighborhoods to attack innocent residents. In all, more than 150 people were injured and 600 arrested over six days of racial violence, aided and abetted by the Los Angeles Police Department.

— More police violence, this time by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, directed at peaceful participants in an August 1970 rally to protest high numbers of Mexican American casualties in the Vietnam War. Deputies arrested more than 100 people, 40 people were injured and 3 were killed, including the widely respected journalist Ruben Salazar, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

— Racist school districts, primarily in California and Texas, that developed “separate but equal” enrollment policies in the 1930s and ’40s that grouped all kids with Spanish surnames, regardless of their ability to speak English, into segregated classrooms, where they received an inferior public education compared to their better-resourced peers in all-white classrooms.

There was more — oh, so much more during the course — that explained how the past has led to the present day, with Mexican Americans lagging behind the U.S. average (and behind whites, in particular) in education, household income and home ownership. Our people are still the ones who harvest fruits and vegetables for everyone else and are still mostly employed in lower-status, lower-income jobs. And all too often, those with darker skin are still assumed to be “illegals” even though the most recent waves of Latino immigrants at the southern border have come from Central American countries.

***

Under the guidance of Professor Marc Rodriguez (more on him later), we plowed through a variety of academic journal articles, documentaries and other media that placed the history and treatment of Mexicans and Mexican Americans within the context of U.S. history during the 20th Century. These texts touched on migration patterns, labor strikes, cultural adaptation; discrimination in housing, employment and education; as well as gains in political representation and immigration reform, and the emergence of street murals as a medium to inspire pride and unity among Chicano communities across the land.

Thankfully, not all was doom and gloom. I was glad to learn more about groups like LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) and the American G.I. Forum that emerged in the 1930s and ’40s to advocate for equal treatment and to urge Mexican immigrants to become U..S. citizens. I hadn’t known about pioneering individuals like Dr. George I. Sánchez, a University of Texas professor, and James DeAnda, a civil rights lawyer from Houston, who both fought for equal education opportunities in the years leading up to the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.

I already knew of the dynamic trio Reies Lopez Tijerina of New Mexico, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales of Colorado and Jose Angel Gutierrez of Texas, who were leading activists during the 1970s, when Chicanos (the self-styled term used to describe progressives) began to exert their political power, even going so far as to establish a third national party called La Raza Unida. But I came away with new insights to their differing tactics, personalities, accomplishments and shortcomings.

I didn’t know of Sal Castro, the high school teacher who risked his job to help East L.A. high school students who walked out em masse in 1968 over demands for more relevant courses, better teachers and improved resources. Together with like-minded college students at UCLA and other universities, their protests helped pave the way for Chicano Studies programs and a first wave of middle-class Mexican American professionals.

And while I had long viewed Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta with admiration for their work to organize farmworkers during the 1960s, I was delighted to learn more about the role of women leaders within the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, the precursor to the United Farm Workers Union. Specifically, I learned of Hope Lopez, a widower and mother of five, who coordinated the UFWOC grapes boycott campaign in Philadelphia along with two young female assistants, both single and childless. All had toiled as farmworkers. None had ever been to the East Coast. Yet, led by Lopez, they crafted a successful strategy that relied on a direct appeal to suburban housewives to support the UFW’s grapes boycott in the Philadelphia area. Previously, male organizers in other cities had rounded up support from politicians, labor councils and the local Catholic archdiocese, without even thinking to reach out to women shoppers, who were typically the primary shoppers in their households.

Finally, it was a jaw-dropping experience to go back in time to the 1980 Republican presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and hear them argue for — not against — federal legislation (eventually passed in 1983) that would permit some 11 million undocumented immigrants, primarily Mexican, to reside legally in the U.S. Both candidates characterized Mexicans as good people, dedicated to their families and hard work — a far cry from the white nationalist vitriol spewed by Donald Trump and GOP voters, and amplied by the right-wing news media.

***

A word about the professor and a final takeaway from the class.

I have nothing but praise for Marc Rodriguez, who grew up in the Midwest and rose to become an author, editor and leading scholar in Mexican American history, acquiring both a Ph.D and a law degree. He taught the class asynchronously, meaning we could access the readings and videos at our convenience, and share our observations online with our classmates within a very flexible schedule.

Marc made it a point to respond constructively and pretty quickly to most student comments, typically adding key facts and drawing on his personal experiences for more context. The 11-week spring term ended last Friday, but we’ve agreed to meet for coffee sometime this summer to continue the conversation beyond the classroom.

As for a final takeaway, it felt good to both fill in the gaps and acquire new information about the social and political history of my people, a process that brought greater clarity to the conditions and limitations that my parents faced growing up in the 1930s and ’40s. Most of all, I was able to better connect several events of the past century with specific places and memories.

Early in the term, we studied a famous strike by Mexican American copper mine workers in southwestern New Mexico that ended with higher pay and expanded benefits. I was flabbergasted to learn the 15-month walkout, ending in January 1952, had taken place near Silver City, the sleepy little town where my dad retired in the late ’80s after a long career as a millwright at a pipe foundry and, later, a stationary engineer at an Oakland hospital.

Later on, we delved into the contentious relationship between California agricultural growers and their poorly paid workers. It sparked a vivid memory of the time when my mom was driving us past a group of UFW pickets in Salinas, the same city where she and my dad had met as teenagers picking lettuce. She rolled down the window, thrust her left arm in the air, and shouted, “Viva la huelga!”

In addition to raising the three of us kids, Mom worked as a seamstress and a taxicab driver and became active at her local senior center. Her 7th grade certificate was a tangible reminder of the limited opportunities she faced and of the privileges I’ve enjoyed, thanks to the efforts she and my dad made to ensure a better life for my sisters and me. I don’t for a moment take for granted the support and encouragement they offered that led me to become the first in my family to attend and graduate from college, work in my chosen profession, and enjoy the rewards of a middle-class lifestyle.

Who could have imagined that nearly 50 years after I graduated from San Jose State University, I’d be taking an online class in the comfort of my home that would enable me to learn more about my family’s history through the study of Chicano history?

Chicano Park in San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood is a national landmark of mural art and a powerful symbol of Mexican-American history, claimed by community members who protected the area beneath a bridge from becoming a California Highway Patrol substation. (Photo: San Diego Tourism Authority)

Tommy Orange and the Urban Indian life

Hollywood and history books haven’t been particularly accurate in their portrayal of Native Americans.

From the time I was a child and extending well into my adult years, these depictions have included cartoonish characters, warring savages, impoverished drunks, and sports team mascots. At the same time, the story of U.S. government policies to forcibly remove tribal members from their traditional lands into urban areas hasn’t been fully told — or maybe even grasped.

If it comes as a surprise to you that nearly 78% of Native Americans live off-reservation, and 72% live in urban or suburban environments, you’re not alone.

But if you are, I’ve got a book for you: “There There” by Tommy Orange, a Cheyenne-Arapaho author who was born and raised in Oakland, California.

It’s an outstanding book, weaving the stories of 12 men, women and teenagers into an intergenerational tale imbued with themes of Native identity and pride, even as these fictional characters grapple with poverty, alcoholism, violence, racism, unemployment and other social ills as they come together at an Oakland powwow.

But don’t mistake this book as “poverty porn.” It’s a look at the lives of contemporary urban Indians, presented through the lens of a 39-year-old writer who previously worked for almost a decade at the Native American Health Center in Oakland, doing work in the behavioral health department.

I first heard about the novel last year, just before the pandemic set in. The Multnomah County Library selected the book for its Everybody Reads 2020 program, and Orange spoke in March of that year to a Portland audience as the culminating event.

A year earlier here, he sat for an interview at the 2019 National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education, talking about the connections between indigenous people and land and place, and pushing back against Native tropes: “Resisting the Violence through Writing: A Conversation with Tommy Orange.” I highly recommend it.

“There There” won a slew of awards, including the 2019 PEN/Hemingway Award for best debut novel, and was named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Time, O, The Oprah Magazine, and many others.

With all that praise, I had high expectations and a keen sense of curiosity. I wasn’t disappointed. Orange is a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico, and he writes beautifully. There’s a Cast of Characters at the front of the book that serves as a useful guide, a powerful Prologue and a series of short chapters that shift with each character’s point of view, burrowing into their personal history and psyche, their hopes and regrets, and laying the groundwork for their presence at the powwow.

***

Oakland has long existed in the shadow of glamorous San Francisco, so I was excited to read a novel based in the gritty East Bay city situated about 25 miles north of where I grew up in Union City and Fremont. Naturally, I enjoyed seeing references to familiar locations and events such as Hegenberger Road off the Nimitz Freeway; the Oakland Coliseum, where I watched the A’s and Raiders play pro baseball and football; and the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island, the 19-month-long protest (1969-71) that established a modern precedent for Indian activism.

In the bigger scheme of things, it’s the urban setting that matters more than the specific city.

“Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign,” Orange writes in the prologue. “But the city made us new, and we made it ours.

“Urban Indians feel at home walking in the shadow of a downtown building. We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than we did any sacred mountain range, the redwoods in the Oakland hills better than any other deep wild forest. We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than the sound of wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread — which isn’t traditional, like reservations aren’t traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing.”

The award-winning author Tommy Orange. (Photo © Elena Seibert / Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

Orange said he wrote the book partly because “(t)here’s so many Native people living in cities and very little written about that experience.” But, he noted, “some of the writing is in resistance to the idea that the only way to be Native is to be from a reservation.”

Among the dozen characters in the book, a few stand out:

Dene Oxendene is a young documentary filmmaker who’s carrying on a project in memory of his uncle, collecting the stories of Native people in the Oakland area.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield is a woman in her 50s who, at age 11, went with her mother and half-sister, Jacquie Red Feather, to Alcatraz to participate in the occupation of the island.

Edwin Black is a biracial young man, college-educated but unemployed, with a love of the internet and high hopes after starting an internship at the Big Oakland Powwow.

Jacquie Red Feather is Opal’s half-sister, a substance abuse counselor who is herself newly sober. She gave up one child for adoption and lost another who passed away as an adult, and now has three grandsons in Opal’s care.

Orvil Red Feather is 14 years old and one of Jacquie’s grandsons, and is deeply interested in his Cheyenne heritage and plans to dance at the powwow.

Not all the characters are related to each other (though some are in ways unbeknownst to them) and not all are Boy Scouts. There are a few drug dealers in the mix, menacing guys packing heat and looking to pull off a big robbery. Inevitably, things go bad.

***

In the past year or so, I’ve intentionally ramped up my consumption of texts and videos, both fiction and non-fiction, in an attempt to become better acquainted with the perspectives of people — especially marginalized people — around the world. It’s been deeply satisfying, delving into Arab American literature; learning more about the international politics and economic systems that link the diverse countries of Africa, Asia and South America; and getting fresh takes on the people and events that have shaped regions like West Africa and Central America.

In that context, “There There” fits beautifully. The chorus of voices in this debut novel speak movingly to the plight of urban Indians, a people who’ve been historically oppressed and rendered invisible as any on the planet.

Orange writes not just from his own experience on the streets of Oakland, but with a perspective reflecting strong cultural ties to his tribal ancestors in Oklahoma. Asked what he wants readers to get from these stories, he says: “As far as takeaways, I don’t wanna spoil the ending, but things don’t exactly end well. But I tried to write as much hope as I could into it, and I feel like it’s where hope and realism meet.”

Last week brought the news that Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel “The Night Watchman,” a story based on the life of her activist grandfather, a night watchman at a factory near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota.

I leave it to Erdrich to have the last word on the mountain of praise heaped upon Orange.

“Welcome to a brilliant and generous artist who has already enlarged the landscape of American fiction. There There is a comic vision haunted by profound sadness. Tommy Orange is a new writer with an old heart.”

Back to the beach

There’s nothing quite like the therapeutic powers of the Oregon Coast. Spend 48 or even 24 hours here and you come away refreshed and relaxed, your heartbeat a little calmer and your senses more attuned to the world around you.

At least, that’s how I felt after a two-day stay with our longtime friends, Tom and Elsa Guiney, at their beach house on the central coast.

Lori and I have known these fellow Bay Area refugees since college, which means, ahem, we go back a long ways — to the days before we became Oregon transplants, then homeowners, parents, grandparents and retirees.

Yes, a lot of miles on the Guiney-Rede friendship, and many more to go.

As with every visit, we ate well, drank generously, walked on the beach, exercised our dogs (their Bernie and our Charlotte have a detente more than a friendship), got caught up on our families, laughed at ourselves over old memories (water beds, anyone?), and learned a few new factoids thanks to a humbling board game (Wits & Wagers).

At sunset our first night, we saw our first-ever “green flash” on the watery horizon. Tom pointed out this rare spectacle, which is caused by the refraction of sunlight, When the conditions are right, a distinct green spot is briefly visible above the upper rim of the sun’s disk; the green appearance usually lasts for no more than two seconds. When we saw the flash, we cheered like kids at a fireworks show.

When we weren’t hanging out at their home, Lori and I were enjoying being passengers as they drove us north on the Three Capes Scenic Loop, a 35-mile route that runs parallel to U.S. 101. Lucky for our friends that they live so close to Cape Kiwanda, Cape Lookout, and Cape Meares. Each of these enormous rock outcroppings is like a jewel extending into the majestic Pacific Ocean.

If we’d had more time, we could have hiked at any one of these stops. But it was satisfying enough just to take in the visuals at each site and marvel at the timeless beauty etched by the sand, sea and land.

Before heading back, we stopped for a delicious lunch at The Schooner in Netarts. Made it home in time for a happy hour with friends and neighbors Katy and Steve, slept in the next day and, after a late breakfast, headed home with bellies full and spirits renewed.

Owing to COVID-19, we hadn’t been at the beach in more than a year. What a gift it was to enjoy beautiful weather and scenery and the company of our generous friends.

A pilgrimage to Cooperstown

As a scrawny kid growing up in the Bay Area in the late ’50s and early ’60s, I used to fantasize about becoming a major league baseball player. Specifically, I imagined myself playing shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers, hitting lots of singles, stealing bases, and making great plays in the field.

In time, I realized that vision was more a delusion than a dream, but I retained a lifelong interest in the sport. So I was thrilled recently when I got a chance to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

As as a lifelong West Coaster, I didn’t see myself making a nearly 3,000-mile trip to see the hallowed hall. But when our youngest son moved to a small town in Central New York a coupe years ago, just 90 miles away from Cooperstown, I began to think it would be possible.

Cooperstown (in purple) is 200 miles north of New York City and about 90 miles east of Ithaca, where our son attends college.

During our recent visit with Jordan and family, Lori and I took a couple of days to ourselves to make the pilgrimage. I’m happy to say the experience was even better than I had imagined. Even the two-and-a-half hour drive to get there was enjoyable, marked by spacious skies and stunning scenery along the two-lane highways we followed through farm country.

Cooperstown is 200 miles north of New York City. It’s a picturesque village of 1,853 people that was settled in the late 18th century. Along with a quaint Main Street adorned with hanging flower baskets, there are lots of baseball-related shops, beautifully restored historic homes, three major museums and a gorgeous body of water just a few blocks from downtown: Otsego Lake, nicknamed the Glimmerglass.

Opened in 1939, the Hall of Fame is a three-story brick building at one end of the business district. It’s filled with a huge variety of exhibits spanning the sport’s earliest days in the mid-1800s to the present. Because we visited before Memorial Day, we didn’t have to deal with summer crowds. We spent about five hours, tucked around lunch at the excellent Doubleday Cafe, leisurely taking in the various displays of memorabilia: scuffed baseballs; ancient catcher’s masks and chest protectors; caps, jerseys, helmets and bats; scorecards, resin bags and baseball cards. There was even a weathered on-deck batting circle with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ logo salvaged from Forbes Field, the team’s old ballpark torn down 50 years earlier.

One of the first things you see entering the lobby is a display of three sculptures honoring three men whose courage and character set them apart as legends of the sport: Jackie Robinson, the gifted athlete who stood up to racism as the first black player in Major League Baseball; Lou Gehrig, who played through the pain of the debiliating neurological disease that now bears his name; and Roberto Clemente, the first Latin American superstar known for his humanitarian deeds.

Roaming through the museum there is so much to see, thoughtfully presented in chronological order and with great attention to detail.

All the biggest stars of yesteryear are here — Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio — along with token mention of a few of those with tarnished reputations likely to keep them out of the hall. Guys like Pete Rose, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire.

I loved three exhibits in particular — one honoring the founders of the Negro Leagues and those who played during the Jim Crow era; another recognizing women in baseball; and a third one celebrating the contributions of Latin American ballplayers.

I was glad to see the museum address baseball’s racist history that kept so many talented black players from reaching the Major Leagues before 1947, when Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Similarly, the museum called out the sexism directed at young women who played professional ball in the ’40s and ’50s for small Midwest cities such as Rockport, Illinois; South Bend, Indiana; Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Their exploits inspired the 1992 film “A League of Their Own.”)

The “Viva Baseball!” exhibit focuses on the stars and traditions of the major baseball-playing countries of Latin America — Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela — plus the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Roberto Clemente became the first Latino inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973, and today Latinos account for about 30 percent of players on today’s major league rosters, four times the number of African Americans, who’ve increasingly gravitated toward football and basketball.

As an aside, I was also pleased to see that the curators didn’t shy away from the steroid era, when a number of players were believed to use performance-enhancing drugs to jack up their home run totals. Shame on them.

***

When I was a kid, baseball was America’s undisputed national pastime. Since then, it’s been eclipsed in popularity by the NFL and the NBA, thanks to shrewd marketing by both leagues and shifting preferences among younger fans.

Yet there’s no doubt that the sport still resonates. Who doesn’t love a game of catch? Who doesn’t smile at the sight of T-ballers struggling to hit a ball, then running toward third base instead of first? And who doesn’t marvel at the skills of today’s gifted young women playing high school and collegiate softball?

I may be biased but I truly believe I came of age during the sport’s golden years, when some of the most talented players ever competed against each other. Little wonder that I felt like a starry-eyed boy again as I paused before exhibits that touted the accomplishments of the incomparable Hank Aaron, the true home run king, and the electrifying Willie Mays, who at 90 is the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame. Add in hitters like Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Lou Brock and Mickey Mantle and pitchers Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, and you had a roster of first-tier stars.

During my college years, from 1973 to 1975, the Oakland A’s won three consecutive World Series titles. I would often drive up from my home in Fremont to see them play, and I was happy to see guys like Reggie Jackson, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Rollie Fingers and Vida Blue given their due. Later, when the 1989 Battle of the Bay World Series between the A’s and Giants was disrupted by a deadly earthquake, I could say I attended the first two games in Oakland with my late mom, a rabid fan who’d become an A’s season ticket holder.

I got a special thrill when I walked through the Hall of Fame plaque gallery toward the end of our visit. This is the quiet, most revered space where bronze plaques of the all-time greats hang on oak walls. Grown-ass men wearing ballcaps and baseball jerseys spoke to each other in hushed tones as they recalled their boyhood memories. One guy asked me to take his picture near the plaque of his favorite player.

Inevitably, I spotted the plaque featuring Dennis Eckersley, who pitched for five major league teams, including the A’s, during a remarkable 23-year career. Dennis grew up in Fremont, California, like I did, and attended the same high school as me. We played against each other in Pony League, the league for 13-to-15-year-olds, and I proudly remember the line-drive single I hit off young Dennis. How many others can say they got a base hit off a Hall of Fame pitcher, eh?

Now that I’ve checked the H.O.F. box on my bucket list, I can set my sights on completing one other goal: seeing a baseball game in every major league ballpark. With 24 down, I’ve got 6 more to go: Kansas City, St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, Tampa and Toronto. Wish me luck!

Postscript: Why is the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown? A commission investigating the origins of baseball credited Abner Doubleday with creating the game in a cow pasture in Cooperstown in 1839. The claim was later debunked but Doubleday’s name is still associated with the sport and there is a small baseball stadium named for him that’s a short walk from the museum.

And a final grab-bag of photos:

Kicking back in Central New York

The apples of our eye: Jamie, Emalyn and Jordan.

For two blissful weeks earlier this month, Lori and I had the opportunity to be with family and explore rural areas of New York state. And, boy, did it feel good.

Like so many other Americans, we’d been eager to get our double dose of vaccines and rebook our flights that had been postponed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. All the waiting was worth it.

The main purpose of the trip was to visit with our son, Jordan, his wife, Jamie, and our granddaughter, Emalyn, who’s fast approaching 5 years old. We did just that, spending time with everyone at their home just outside Groton, a village of about 5,800 residents that lies 45 miles slightly southwest of Syracuse, the nearest big city. In addition to their home fronting a two-lane state highway, they have five acres of property that includes a barn and chicken coop, a garden, plenty of trees, and a stream where they can catch trout.

All three are animal lovers, so the current census includes one dog, four cats (one of which is a mouser who lives outdoors) and nearly a dozen chickens, who provide fresh eggs and companionship. Emmy’s favorite is Pearl, a white bantam who’s the smallest of the bunch and most docile.

We hadn’t seen our youngest son since since 2019. It was gratifying to see him in his element as a husband, father and graduate student. He’s pursuing a Ph.D in marine microbiology and is three years into the five-year (possibly six) progam at Cornell University in nearby Ithaca.

As one might expect, the pandemic forced a suspension of on-campus classes and access to the science labs, so Jordan has been working from home, analyzing data and participating in weekly Zoom sessions with department faculty and other Ph.D students. Hopefully, things will revert to normal in the fall.

We’re awfully proud of Jordan’s academic achievements but we also appreciate that his easygoing personality hasn’t changed. He may be on the other side of 30 and responsible for a lot of upkeep on the property, but he still eats like a teenager (ranch dressing on his pizza is a new fave) and makes time to chill with video games and old TV shows like “King of the Hill.”

Jordan has been married now for 11 years to Jamie. Our daughter-in-law is a stay-at-home mom whose influence is easy to see in our granddaughter’s love of the natural world and her zest for life itself. Along with taking on most domestic chores, Jamie exhibits a great work ethic, self-sufficiency and respect for the environment. Whether she is feeding the chickens, weeding in the garden, doing homemade art projects, cooking or baking, Emmy is likely to be at her side, helping and learning from each activity. Jamie’s well-rounded background clearly is rooted in her own upbringing on a horse ranch in southern Oregon.

As for Emalyn, what can I say? She ran us ragged during our stay. She’s not just a talker, but a doer. From hour to hour (make that from half-hour to half-hour), she’ll do a project with Noni Lori at her child-sized table, play an imaginary game with her toy horses, kick a soccer ball back and forth with Papa George, play on her swing set, hurtle down a water slide, help Jamie with the chickens, ask for a snack and, whew, eventually settle down to watch a short TV episode or two. Keep in mind all this comes after a full day of pre-K classes at the local elementary school.

Bottom line: Emmy is a delight to be around. She’s smart, kind, curious and affectionate, and she’s developed a nice sense of humor, partly from the “dad jokes” I’ve shared with her online.

A second purpose of the trip was to drive 90 miles to Cooperstown so we could visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Friends who had visited there (and who, incidentally, were taking care of Charlotte while we were away) told us we’d love the museum experience as well as the historic downtown. They were right.

The Hall of Fame was a wonderful experience for me, as a lifelong fan of the game, but also something that Lori enjoyed. (Separate blog post to come regarding the Hall of Fame, but for now I’ll just say it exceeded my expectations.) The town itself has about 1,800 residents and it’s situated on the shore of Otsego Lake, a beautiful body of water that draws tourists during the summer and freezes over during the winter.

There’s an old-timey feel to Main Street with hanging flower baskets, friendly shopkeepers and decades-old businesses selling all kinds of sports-related souvenirs and clothing. And because we visited before Memorial Day, we didn’t have to deal with crowds or competition for parking spaces.

What surprised us — blew us away, actually — was the 2 1/2-hour drive from Groton. I’d imagined a pretty straight shot from west to east, but instead we followed a route that took us along lightly traveled state highways that passed through some of the most beautiful rural scenery I’ve ever seen.

I grew up thinking of New York like most everyone else, a vibrant, crowded place defined by skyscrapers, subways and zillions of people. But four hours away by car, Central New York is the exact opposite of Manhattan. Think green rolling hills, leafy deciduous trees, dairy cows, farmers on tractors, two-story farmhouses, red barns, silver silos, and wide-open skies with spectacular cloud formations. We passed through several villages, each of them around 2,000 to 3,000 residents, that were strung out like pearls on a necklace. Some towns were charming, others not so much, owing to aging business districts and lack of industry.

I wasn’t surprised, though, by the number of Trump banners and flags still on display months after the election. I knew from previous visits to New York that politics run conservative outside NYC and other urban areas of the state.

We’ve been back in Portland for a few days now, but we will long cherish the new experiences and memories we created on this trip. Everything just went so wonderfully well, from our accommodations to shared meals to daytime excursions and, for me, the chance to run on some local trails.

Our airbnb, just two miles from Jordan and Jamie’s place, was an incredible find on Lori’s part. It’s an old farmhouse with parts of it dating back to the early 1900s, and it’s ideally suited for two with a well-stocked kitchen, an electric woodstove, an upstairs bedroom, and modern appliances. We enjoyed eating farm fresh eggs (thanks to Pearl & Co.) for breakfast as we looked out at deer and other wildlife: a woodchuck, a rabbit and a cardinal.

We came together for dinners, including two Friday “family nights” that featured made-to-order burgers; we went on a nature walk at a Cornell-run bird sanctuary with Jamie and Emalyn; and the two of us slipped away one day to have lunch and shop in Ithaca. A bonus: getting to celebrate Jamie and Lori on Mother’s Day.

I could go on and on. Best to stop and post a few favorite pictures. We’re already looking forward to visiting again in 2022.

Berlin? Nicht.

If things had gone as planned, I’d be booking a plane ticket to Berlin right about now.

The plan was to teach a two-week summer class in the German capital focusing on the topics of Sports, Culture and the Media. Originally scheduled for early July, the dates were now set for mid-August and I’d successfully recruited 10 students who’d enrolled in the course.

But for the second year running, those plans were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Late last week, I agreed with my colleagues in the Education Abroad office at Portland State University to pull the plug on the 2021 program. And on Tuesday of this week, we took the same action on a hastily assembled alternative proposal to move the course to London and offer it in September.

I was heartbroken for the students, each of whom had hung in there with me since fall, hoping that international travel and quarantine restrictions would be lifted as coronavirus infections decreased and vaccination rates improved. Unfortunately, change didn’t come fast enough.

The Olympiastadion is a sports stadium at Olympiapark Berlin in Berlin, Germany. I’ll have to wait until next year to see it in person with my students.

I’d had most of the applicants in a previous class, so I knew I’d be learning alongside a very capable group of students. For those who’d never traveled outside the United States, I knew it would be a life-changing experience. The daily schedule would have included field trips to various media organizations, plus the Olympic Stadium and the Bundestag (the German Parliament). We would have hosted guest speakers, toured a museum or two, seen the Berlin Wall, and made time to take in the city’s vibrant arts and music scene.

Selfishly, I was disappointed.

From an academic standpoint, I was looking forward to teaching again for the first time since retiring last June. There is so much more to take in about how the world of sports reflects societal issues at large — everything from political activism and mental health to economics, sexism, racism and the digital transformation of the news, advertising and entertainment industries. As one example, think about the prominent role that LeBron James and other athletes have played in supporting Black Lives Matter and boosting voter participation in recent elections.

From a personal standpoint, I was anticipating having Lori join me at the end of the program so we could explore Berlin together and veer off from there to visit Prague or Warsaw or possibly both. We’d done the same two years earlier, when I taught in London, and it was a fabulous experience. We made the most of a few days together in the British capital and squeezed in a day trip to Oxford..

So what now?

Well, our summer calendar is pretty wide-open. We’ll see if we can take a road trip or two that’s fairly close to home.

Meanwhile, I’ll plan to market the Berlin program again this fall. I’m optimistic that public health issues will be resolved well ahead of next summer, and I’m betting that students will be very eager to study abroad after two years of being denied that chance.

Berlin 2022? Ja!

Breathe again

With a double dose of the Covid vaccine in our arms, Lori and I are grateful to be easing back into the life we had before the pandemic: socializing in-person again with family and friends, and even doing a little traveling.

We’re still wearing our masks as needed, but this week we took a big step toward normalcy with a two-night stay at Carson Hot Springs Resort in Southwest Washington. The sprawling resort lies just outside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, roughly 50 miles from our home in Portland.

Though we spent less than 48 hours there, the trip provided a glimpse of the life we envisioned as new retirees. Namely, the ability to book a place during the week, to travel back and forth at a leisurely pace, to sightsee or just chill in our room, and to return home with no work or social obligations.

Along with the joy of discovering a new place, I appreciated the chance to just breathe again. Not just to take in the fresh air coming up from the Gorge but also the opportunity to exhale and leave behind the stresses of the city.

This trip was a long time coming.

I’d bought a gift certificate for Lori for Christmas of 2019 but we weren’t able to use it during the pandemic year of 2020. Once we got our two shots of Pfizer, I got in touch with the resort and we booked two nights. Turned out to be just what we needed as a place for relaxation, romance and just enough remoteness without going off the grid.

The resort is just east of Stevenson, which itself lies across the river from Cascade Locks and the iconic Bridge of The Gods. The resort dates back to 1901 and is known for the hot springs discovered in the area by a white settler, Isadore St. Martin. The historic St. Martin Hotel is still standing, along with a bathhouse completed in 1923. In the years since, the original cabins were replaced with modern structures offering amenities such as fireplaces and mineral bath tubs on the balconies of some rooms.

We stayed in a ground-floor unit with a hot tub just outside the room and enjoyed a level of peace and quiet we hadn’t experienced in more than a year. So soothing. We awoke Tuesday and Wednesday mornings to the sight of tall trees backed by mountains with a trace of snow.

The on-site restaurant was closed so we went into Carson for one meal and into Stevenson for a couple more.

George and Lori on the dining deck at Big T’s Grill in Stevenson, Washington.

There ain’t much to Carson. On the main drag, there’s a general store, a brewpub, a post office, a drive-thru coffee shop, and a cannabis shop next to a Bible church. It’s big enough to support a middle school and elementary school, and the homes tend to be on fairly big lots. The resort is just outside the city limits.

Stevenson, four miles to the west along State Route 14, was a pleasant surprise. It’s a tidy little town with an historic waterfront that used to draw sternwheelers back in the day. There’s a riverfront park with a trail and scenic overlook, picnic tables, and weather-proof instruments (a drum, xylophone and musical chimes) set out on the grass for visitors to play with.

Among several food options, we grabbed lunch at Red Bluff Tap House, dinner to go from La Casa de Sabor, and breakfast on our last morning at Big T’s Grill. At both places where we sat for a meal on the deck, our little dog Charlotte was able to join us for fresh air and friendly service.

Back at the resort, Lori enjoyed being pampered with a full body towel wrap after a 45-minute soak in the bathhouse. I opted for a run around the property that took me onto some trails not meant for guests (shhh!) and eventually to an adjoining golf course. There I discovered a small cemetery named for the St. Martin family and whose tallest grave marker was none other than Isadore’s (1842-1910).

Altogether, there were about two dozen grave sites, including one for a teenager and another for a day-old infant. Someone had visited recently and left toys and trinkets on a couple of graves, as well as an Almond Roca candy bar.

***

There’s a second meaning to “breathe again” in this post.

On Tuesday afternoon, we learned along with everyone else that a jury had convicted a former Minneapolis cop of murder in the death of George Floyd.

Floyd’s repeated cries for help — “I can’t breathe ” — while the cop kneeled on his neck for more than 9 minutes were captured for all the world to see, over and over and over again, on May 25, 2020. That ghastly image, of one man callously squeezing the life out of another, will always be a defining image for me of the pandemic.

Lori and I were grateful the jury delivered justice — both for Floyd’s family and for the nation as a whole. Even as the rest of the country celebrated Derek Chauvin’s convictions, however, Portland police declared an unlawful assembly and made at least two arrests Tuesday night.

We are so tired of a small group of far-left activists continuing to engage in property damage and assaults on the cops. These folks are committed not to reforming the police, but to abolishing the police entirely.

That ain’t gonna happen. In the meantime, their misguided campaign is winning them no followers here and doing nothing but damage to the Black Lives Matter cause.

My wish at this point is that reality will eventually triumph over delusion, and we can focus on police reforms that move us toward racial justice and more thoughtful law enforcement.

Wouldn’t it be nice to breathe again? Each and every one of us.

‘The Displaced’: Timely and poignant

If ever there was a good time to burrow into a collection of essays by refugee writers from around the world, it was now. And by “good” I mean timely and relevant.

The world’s attention has been focused lately on Syria and Myanmar, but people in Afghanistan and several African nations are among millions who also have been driven from their homes by political unrest and ongoing violence. Closer to home, we’ve been saturated with coverage of Mexican and Central American migrants surging to the southern border, hoping for a chance at a better life in the United States.

If you’re looking for a way to better understand this global crisis, there may be no better way than through the individual voices of men and women who, along with their families, have survived it and become prominent writers, each and every one.

Published in 2018, “The Displaced” is a slim book of 17 essays edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who was just a child when his family fled Saigon in 1975 and later won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016 for his debut novel “The Sympathizer.”

The writers hail from all over — Afghanistann, Bosnia, Mexico, Germany, Hungary, Vietnam, Zimbabwe and more — and their stories range from World War II and the Vietnam War to more recent experiences.

The essays are poignant and illuminating. Written at a high level, they provide multiple perspectives on what it means to be displaced.

To abandon your home and leave behind the people you love. To deal with the hardships and indignities of life in a refugee camp. To adapt to a new home in a land where the language, food and customs are foreign to you. To start a new life as an outsider, no matter whether it is somewhere in Europe or Asia, Canada or the United States.

In his introduction to the book, Nguyen says the world faces an enormous humanitarian crisis. Of 65.6 million people that the United Nations classifies as displaced people, some 40.3 million are internally displaced people, forced to move within their on countries; 22.5 million are refugees, fleeing unrest in their countries; and 2.8 million are asylum seekers.

The 22.5 million refugees are the highest number ever recorded, seeking to escape persecution and conflict. Yet, the U.S. and other countries, from the United Kingdom to Germany, have been reducing the number of refugees allowed to settle each year.

In the face of such trends, “The Displaced” gives voice to individual stories of persistence in the face of traumas most of us will never know. The essayists reflect on moments of uncertainty, resilience and identity.

“These displaced persons are mostly unwanted where they fled from; unwatned where they are, in refugee camps; and unwatned where they want to go,” Nguyen writes, “They have fled under arduous condtions; they have lost friends, family members, homes, and countries; they are detained in refugee camps in often subhuman conditions with no clear end to the stay and no definitive exit; they are often threatened with deportation to their countries of origin; and they will likely be unremembered, which is where the works of writers becomes important, especially writers who are refugees or have been refugees — if such a distinction can be drawn.”

It’s hard to single out the best of the best among these essays, but I found these two as particularly clarifying and insightful.

— In “The Parent Who Stays,” Reyna Grande recalls the time, at age 9 1/2, when her father hired a smuggler to take her and her siblings from their home in Mexico to join him in the United States, where he had moved 8 years earlier to try to find work. With her head infested with lice and belly swollen with tapeworm, Reyna wore a tattered dress, broken sandals held together with wire, and had dusty feet, the dirt caked under her toenails, when she found herself at the border and became an “illegal” human being by crossing into the U.S. without permission.

Now an award-winning novelist and inspirational speaker, Grande writes: “We couldn’t come here as ‘real’ refugees. Poverty no matter how extreme, doesn’t meet any of the criteria for asylum. The term ‘economic refugee,’ a negative term here and in Europe, doesn’t encourage compassion in the receiving country, either socially or politically.

“Yet, what all displaced people have most in common, regardless of here we come from, regardless if we are ‘official’ refugees or ‘illegal’ immigrants, is our trauma. The trauma that propels us to this land, and the traumatic experiences that await us.”

It’s poverty, as well as gang violence and political instability, that is driving thousands and thousands of people to leave their villages in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other countries for the U.S., only to be held up the border an demonized by far too many Americans.

— In “The Ungrateful Refugee,” Dina Nayeri, puts her finger on why so many Americans seem to resent foreigners, even when they learn English, throw away their headscarf, convert to Christianity, get a college education and settle into a solid job. The answer lies in resentment — the perception that the refugee is taking away something that should rightfully belong to a native-born American — and an expectation that the refugee should be eternally grateful for the opportunity to start anew in the U.S. rather than mourn what was lost in her homeland.

Dina was 10 when she and her Iranian family were accepted by the U.S. and sent to Oklahoma, just as the first Gulf War began. The first thing she heard from her classmates was a strange “ching-chong” intended to mock her accent. She spoke Farsi and, obviously, wasn’t Chinese. But she realized then these children were so ignorant of the world outside America that they evidently had met one foreigner before, who came from Southeast Asia.

Now a novelist with degrees from Harvard and the Iowa Writers Workshop, Nayeri is troubled by the way in which people, even those on the left, make the case for refugees by pointing to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens and listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth. Rather than cite those positives that letting in refugees is a good thing, isn’t it more fair to accept that most refugees, like most Americans, are average people? Why do we expect “sugary success stories” instead of a bunch or ordinary people, sometimes bitter and confused, she asks.

“Isn’t glorifying the refugees who thrive according to Western standards just another way to endorse this same gratitude politics?” Nayeri writes. “Isn’t it akin to holding up the most acquiescent to examples of what a refugee should be, instead of offering each person the same options that are granted to the native-born citizen? Is the life of the happy mediocrity a privilege reserved for those who never stray from home?”

This is the kind of writing to touches my head and my heart. By delving into one person’s story at a time, it deepens my understanding of differing circumstances around the globe that have forced millions to flee for their lives. At the same time, it illuminates the common experiences, difficulties and aspirations of those who have been displaced.

***

Want to help refugees in the Portland area?

Consider volunteering or donating to IRCO, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

Want to know more about individual stories?

Read and listen to people from all around the world, now living in Oregon, at The Immigrant Story. This is a nonprofit started by my friend Sankar Raman, a retired Intel engineer who’s originally from India.

You can start with this episode featuring Divine Irambona, a refugee from Tanzania.

Listen here: https://theimmigrantstory.org/?powerpress_embed=10932-podcast&powerpress_player=mediaelement-audio

Alexie & Bukowski

I don’t normally review two books at once, but after reading the work of two celebrated American authors back-to-back it made sense to compare and contrast their styles and, in the process, figure out what I like and what I don’t.

At first glance, Sherman Alexie and Charles Bukowski wouldn’t appear to have much in common. But if you accept the idea that both men write (or wrote) about ordinary people, maybe looking at their work side-by-side makes some sense.

Alexie, 54, is the author of 26 books, spanning novels, poetry and memoir, and is perhaps best known for his short stories. He is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington, and now lives in Seattle. He’s won the National Book Award among other honors and I count him among my favorite authors, knowing he writes with honesty, pathos and wicked humor, whether focusing on urban or reservation life.

Bukowski was 73 when he died in 1994. He was the only child of an American soldier and German mother who moved to the U.S. when he was 3. He grew up in Los Angeles and became a prolific writer, known for using direct language and violent and sexual images. He published 45 books during his lifetime, churning out novels, poetry and short stories. I hadn’t read any of his work until a friend gave me one of his novels in a recent book exchange.

That book was “Factotum,” published in 1975 and later made into a movie starring Matt Dillon. I blew through its 205 pages in two days.

Next, I read “War Dances,” a collection of short stories and poetry that Alexie published in 2009. Likewise, I sailed through its 209 pages in two days.

“Factotum” is a word I hadn’t even heard of and, funny thing, it appears nowhere in the novel. It means “an employee who does all kinds of work.” And, believe me, it certainly applies to the protagonist, Henry Chinaski, as he drifts from one job to another across America during the World War II years, hooking up with a succession of loose women in one city after another.

For Henry, work isn’t something that’s noble or a means to any end, other than earning just enough money to buy booze and cigarettes and a cheap room as a boarder. As an employee, he steals, he slacks off, he gets into fistfights with other workers, and he’s just as likely to quit as get fired, sometimes within hours of starting the job. When he’s with a woman, it’s a similar story: get drunk, have sex, sleep in, miss work, drink, have sex, etc., until he abruptly leaves or she kicks him out.

I swear, the novel can be summed up as Henry either getting laid or getting laid off.

In contrast, “War Dances” consists of six stories tucked between several poems, with four of those told in the first-person and two in the third-person. One of the most compelling tales is “Breaking and Entering.” A film editor in Seattle working from his home while his family is away is startled when he discovers someone breaking into his house intent on stealing his DVD collection. He confronts the young burglar with a baseball bat and, in the aftermath, reflects on his experiences with race and class and power.

Another story, “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless,” portrays a vintage clothing store owner who’s mired in a failing marriage when he notices a beautiful woman, wearing eye-catching red Pumas, walking on a moving sidewalk in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. He pursues her, strikes up a conversation and, improbably, runs into her again in other airports as the two of them fly around the country for their respective work. Paul knows he’s a cheating husband with three teenaged daughters, who’s attracted to a stranger. And as events play out, he knows he needs to come to grips with what’s going on in his life: how can he move beyond this fantasy woman and make amends with the real women he’s betrayed?

Reading these two books together brought a few questions to mind:

What qualifies as good literature? Is it enough to tell an entertaining story or does it have to convey meaning? Do the characters need to be likable? Does it matter if the reader is offended? What do I consider offensive?

For me, good literature stands the test of time. It informs and illuminates. It presents both new and familiar perspectives. The characters are relatable in some way.

Alexie’s book, published in 2009, is barely a dozen years old. The short stories mention computers, airport travel, hospital surgeries, eBay and REI, and contain Boomer references to Marvin Gaye and “The Breakfast Club.” His characters deal with life and death, racism, stereotypes, monogamy, cheating, honor and kindness. Each one gives you reason to pause and ask, “What would I do?” or “How would I handle this?”

Bukowski’s book now nearly 50 years old, is a time capsule of sad lives led in the days before modern technology. In these pages, Henry — or Hank, as he is often called — looks for work by searching the newspaper want ads or, just as often, stopping in at a local business unannounced. He travels by train and bus, not air, as he criss-crosses the country, from New Orleans to Los Angeles to St. Louis to New York to San Francisco to Miami and back to L..A., finding himself with literally just $2.08 to his name.

There’s a lot of action packed into the book — with some 87 different scenes told in just a few paragraphs or a few pages — but none of it provokes deep thought. Bukowski writes short, sturdy sentences in a no-bullshit style that throws open a window to a way of living that’s unsavory and unappealing.

Henry Chinaski assaults his father, brawls with strangers, picks up floozies at taverns and bars, puts in minimal effort at work, and racks up just as many evictions as pink slips. He’s a hard-drinking racist, a callous misogynist and staunchly antisocial, a loner who thrives on solitude.

“I don’t like people,” he says to a new acquaintance.

Reading these vignettes, I realized that I know no one in real life like Chinaski, nor would I want to. I’ve read plenty of books, fiction and nonfiction alike, filled with F-bombs, violence and bad behavior of all sorts, so it’s not that I’m a prude. What is absent from “Factotum” is any kind of redeeming quality in the main character. Couple that with his dismissive “othering” of Mexicans and Blacks and the end result is a novel that left a bad taste in my mouth.

I had imagined Bukowski might be similiar in style to Raymond Carver, who populated his short stories with lower-middle-class characters like waitresses, mechanics and factory workers, all coping with the stresses of ordinary life. But, no.

According to the Poetry Foundation, Bukowski “was a prolific underground writer who used his poetry and prose to depict the depravity of urban life and the downtrodden in American society.” In my view, he crosses the line between profane and repulsive.

Circling back to Alexie, his characters are flawed, too, but they also are aware of the hurt they’ve caused others. The aforementioned Paul knows he has been an unfaithful husband and so he is remorseful about disappointing his wife and daughters.

In another story, “The Senator’s Son,” the protagonist, William, joins some friends in randomly assaulting two gay men in Seattle, thereby incurring the wrath of his father, a U.S. senator who fears that his political career will be ended if the attack comes out in the news. William knows he’s done wrong and does some soul-searching after the assault, even meeting with one of the victims; in the end, he and his father forgive each other.

Alexie and Bukowski clearly are products of different times and different sensibilities. Were Bukowski still alive, he’d be celebrating his 100th birthday this year — nearly twice the age of Alexie.

Though both men write about ordinary people, one does it in a way that is lyrical and the other in a style that is lewd and lurid. It may be unfair to judge them against each other as writers from different eras, but if “Factotum” is representative of Bukowski’s work, I will gladly stick to reading more of Alexie’s.

‘White Tiger’: a dazzling debut novel about crime, corruption and caste in India

One of the most enjoyable things I’ve experienced as a dad is receiving the gift of a well-chosen book from my adult kids. Over the years, they’ve introduced me to authors such as Celeste Ng, Ocean Vuong, J.D. Vance and Roberto Bolaño.

For my most recent birthday in December, I received “The White Tiger” from my youngest son, Jordan. He’d read the book a few years earlier as an undergraduate student and recommended it highly. Having just devoured it myself, I can see why.

“White Tiger” is the debut novel by Aravind Adiga, an Indian journalist who attended Columbia and Oxford universities. Adiga began writing a first draft of the book in 2005. He put it aside for a year before returning to it, then rewrote it entirely and published it in 2008. The book promptly won that year’s Man Booker Prize as the best novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. It became a New York Times bestseller and, in January, was made into a movie, now available on Netflix.

All this praise is well deserved.

Adiga has written a dazzling book that is highly readable and sharply critical of the social-political-economic systems in his native country. The story is told from the perspective of a lower-caste Indian from a poor village in a series of middle-of-the-night emails to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The narrator, Balram Halwai, is a young enterpreneur who’s formed a startup company in Bangalore, known around the world as a center of tech and IT companies.

Balram learns that Jiabao is planning a trip to Bangalore and so, rather audaciously, he writes several emails to the Chinese leader, praising that country’s recent progress and offering to share his own story of success. The emails are intended to be flattering, but over the course of seven days they become disjointed, profane and increasingly manic.

Although Balram’s story is one of rags-to-riches, there are dark aspects of how he’s come to acquire the capital needed to start his business. He is the son of a rickshaw-puller in Laxmanghar, a village mired in poverty, pollution and sewage, and offering no hope to the next generation. To get a decent job, he understands he needs to leave.

Balram gets hired as a servant at the home of a wealthy (and corrupt) local businessman and quickly gets promoted to driver, a more prestigious job. While ferrying his employer and his wife from place to place in a luxury automobile, Balram listens surreptitiously to their conversations and gains more insight into the behaviors and the thinking of his boss. He masks his resentments of the criticisms and petty insults he’s made to endure on the job, and begins plotting a proper response, one that could involve violence.

That’s where things get interesting.

Adiga writes compellingly about class and corruption, about the vast inequities in Indian society that are driven by greed and graft and sustained by generations of politicans and businessmen. He lays bare the privilege and poverty at both ends of the capitalist system that enriches cheats and scoundrels while oppressing the lower classes.

On one hand, you have malls, giant apartment buildings and gleaming hotels in Delhi, the national capital, all built to serve the wealthy, from India and abroad. On the other hand, you have construction workers and other villagers living in slum-like conditions on nearby streets, wretched souls left to defecate in the open.

“These people on the streets were building homes for the rich, but they lived in tents covered with blue tarpaulin sheets, and partitioned into lanes by lines of sewage,” Balram writes. “It was even worse than Laxmangarh. I picked my way around the broken glass, wires, and shattered tube lights. The stench of feces was replaced by the stronger stench of industrial sewage. The slum ended in an open sewer — a small river of black water went sluggishly past me, bubbles sparkling in it and little circles spreading on its surface. Two children were splashing about in the black water.”

Source: brittanica.com

At some point, the book becomes a crime novel. Balram, the meek chauffeur, becomes disconnected from reality as he chases his dream of becoming an entrepreneur. Doing so means plotting against his boss. It means using his wits, evident at an early age, to obtain what he thinks he is owed — a better life.

Early in the novel, a school teacher praises young Balram as “the smartest of the lot.” A visiting official goes one step further, telling him directly,

“You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals — the creature that comes along only once in a generation?”

I thought about it and said:

“The white tiger.”

“That’s what you are, in this jungle.”

If India is a jungle and being cunning is key to your survival, well then, we shouldn’t be surprised that Balram uses every tool at his disposal to escape his caste-driven destiny. As readers, perhaps we should applaud his rise from abject poverty to young capitalist, even if it means playing by a corrupt set of rules. Or perhaps we should condemn his unsavory behavior.

That’s the moral dilemma that Aravind Adiga presents in a story that’s told exceptionally well.

Here’s the trailer for the Netflix movie.