A hillbilly’s memoir

Don’t know about you, but I’ve always been drawn to novels, memoirs and non-fiction narratives that unlock the key to unfamiliar places or people.

That was my thinking when I picked up “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” a New York Times bestseller.

hillbilly_elegyI hoped I might gain insight into a subculture of Americans who’ve lately become the focus of national attention. I hoped I might understand a little better just what it is about being poor, white and rural in one of the country’s most economically depressed regions that makes people want to place their future in the hands of a wealthy, fear-mongering businessman and reality TV star living in Manhattan.

In fairness to author J.D. Vance, that’s not the reason he wrote “Hillbilly Elegy.” The idea for the book had already come together before the presidential primaries had begun and had nothing to do with Trump. Yet the book does provide a window into the psychology of the struggling white working class in Appalachia and neighboring Rust Belt states.

“There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself,” Vance says in the introduction.

Vance concedes the absurdity of writing a memoir at just 31 years of age. But as a Rust Belt refugee who escaped the cycle of poverty and violence in his extended family in Kentucky and Ohio and went on to the Marine Corps, Ohio State University and Yale Law School, he brings a fresh, clear-eyed perspective:

“I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it.”

I  think the book has great value in these times. Vance is a good writer, honest and prescriptive in his analysis. He’s not arguing that poor whites deserve any more sympathy than anyone else. He’s not excusing the brawling, drinking, drug-taking ways of his dysfunctional family. He’s taking a hard look at social class from both ends of the spectrum — from poor folk living in the hollers of Kentucky and the industrial Midwest to Yale classmates born into a life of privilege and a sense of entitlement.

And in doing so, he holds the people in his world accountable for a litany of shortcomings:

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Vance paints a grim portrait of himself — a Scots-Irish hillbilly — and others who inhabit the Greater Appalachian culture stretching from Alabama to Georgia in the South to Ohio in the North.

They don’t value education and their kids do poorly in school. They scream and yell and hit and punch each other. They smoke and drink too much and become drug addicts. They spend money on giant TVs and other luxuries, often using payday loans and high-interest credit cards, and declare bankruptcy when the bills come due.

They drop out of the labor force. They get fired for stealing or absenteeism. They choose to not to retrain or relocate for better opportunities. They live in social isolation, resentful of outsiders. And they point the finger at everyone but themselves.

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The author J.D. Vance.

“We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some unperceived unfairness,” Vance writes. “Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance –the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

It’s not hard to see why folks like these would rally around someone, a fellow blame-shifter, promising to take them back to the days when jobs were easy to come by.

Vance spent his early years in Jackson, in the hills of impoverished eastern Kentucky. He moved with his mother, sister and grandparents to Middletown, Ohio, a now-decaying steel town filled with so many other Kentucky transplants they called it “Middletucky.”

His mother was hooked on drugs and went through several husbands and boyfriends while stealing family heirlooms and selling them to support her habit. J.D. credits his older sister and maternal grandparents for helping raise him amidst the chaos and instability.

He, too, was headed toward a life of underachievement in a community suffering from social and economic decline but was saved by three things: the encouragement provided by teachers at his public high school; the cocoon of love and support provided by his grandparents Mamaw and Papaw after he quit living with his mom; and a cousin’s advice to consider the Marine Corps.

The Corps instilled in young Vance a sense of discipline and self-worth and, for the first time, exposed him to people unlike himself. It was the key to enrolling in college and, from there, applying to Yale Law, a place where 95 percent of students come from the upper middle class. It was the place where he would marry a fellow Indian American student; land prestigious internships in Washington, D.C.; launch a successful legal career; and wind up in San Francisco working for a Silicon Valley investment firm.

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So, Vance asks, why did he make it out when so many others don’t?

In short, it’s because he had a handful of individuals in his community who empowered him with a sense that he could control his own destiny. And, it’s because government offered plenty of resources in the form of public schools and universities, federal financial aid for college, and Social Security benefits for his grandparents.

Toward the end of the book, Vance cites a study that revealed there is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites about their chances at bettering themselves economically. More than half of blacks, Latinos and college-educated whites expect that their children will do better than they have, the study found. But among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that view.

economic-mobility-word-cloudIn the aftermath of Trump’s improbable victory, Vance provides a timely counter-narrative to the rhetoric of modern conservatives. He’s seen friends from Middletown blossom while others succumb to drugs, prison and premature parenthood.

“What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their lives.” Vance says. “Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”

Imagine that. A young conservative from the Midwest refusing to join in on the government-bashing and willing to point to individual responsibility as a key to rising above life’s circumstances. We’ve seen generations of immigrants do it. Let’s see if the white working class, unburdened by skin color, can do it.

Vance has done a remarkable job in writing “Hillbilly Elegy.” With a tone of humility throughout, he offers hope that others might also escape the legacy of violence, poverty and despair that characterizes his part of America.

Photograph: Naomi McCulloch

Wordcloud: 123rf.com

Read an excellent review of the book in The New York Times.

 

2016: What a year

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Dawn on Orcas Island brings a magnificent view of Mount Baker.

Three weeks from today, the nation will inaugurate a new president — not the one I wanted, not the one everyone expected, but the bloviating mess known as Donald J. Trump.

I shudder to think what the next four years will be like under this man who continues to defy every social and political convention while trampling on the bounds of common decency. Especially so after the model of dignity, grace and intelligence that we’ve seen exhibited by Barack Obama and his equally impressive wife, Michelle, a power in her own right.

It’s still beyond belief that a man so ignorant (and proud of it), so misogynistic (and proud of it), so narcissistic (and proud of it) has been elected to the nation’s highest office. Yet there’s no disputing that Trump’s election was the story of the year in 2016.

But I’m not going to dwell on him. I’ve got my own agenda today — and that’s taking a look back at the year that was. For all the sadness we felt seeing so many entertainers and other public figures pass from the scene — David Bowie, Prince, Maurice White, Elie Wiesel, Garry Shandling, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, et al — there was a lot of other stuff going on in the Rede household.

After all, this is the year I traveled a new path, away from the newsroom where I had worked for the past 30 years. This was the year I caught a glimpse of what retirement might be like, only to settle into a new work routine in the fall.

Here’s a quick take:

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First grandchild: We welcomed a charming little girl into our lives in late July. Little Emalyn May Rede, the daughter of our youngest son, Jordan, and his wife, Jamie, has been nothing but a source of pride and joy.

Lori and I were privileged to be the first ones to see and hold Emalyn, other than her parents, when she was just hours old. In the months since, she’s already transformed from helpless infant to smiling, healthy baby, seemingly delighted to be part of the action.

A new job (actually, two): Just as my severance from The Oregonian/OregonLive was running out in mid-September, along came two opportunities to return to the workforce.

Portland State University hired me to teach in the Department of Communications. I got started with a Media Ethics class that set me on a course I’ve always wanted to explore — that of a classroom teacher.

At the same time, I landed a part-time job as communications coordinator with the nonprofit Portland Workforce Alliance, an organization that partners with local employers and schools to expand career and technical education opportunities for metro-area high school students.

In January, I will add a third leg to this stool as an adjunct instructor at Washington State University Vancouver. I loved being a journalist, but I also feel fortunate to have these new employment opportunities.

The big noventa: My dad turned 90 years old in March, so all three of us kids and our extended families gathered in a San Diego suburb to celebrate nine decades of good living.

My dad and stepmom drove in from New Mexico. Lori and I flew in from Portland. My younger sister Cathy flew down from Alaska. My older sister Rosemary, with help from her daughter and son-in-law, hosted the party near Oceanside.

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Thanks to a selfie stick, four generations of Redes gather around Dad (in black hat) in honor of his 90th birthday.

Catarino Allala Rede is the only sibling left from a family of seven brothers and two sisters. It was great to see my dad basking in the love and admiration of his children, grandchildren and great-children. For a man who did manual labor all his life and whose formal education stopped at the eighth grade before he went back later in life to get a G.E.D., he’s done pretty damn well.

A baseball road trip: In May, I made a whirlwind trip that allowed me to see four Major League Baseball games in three cities in five days. I flew into Pittsburgh, then drove to Cleveland and on to Cincinnati.

In all, I covered about 400 miles from western Pennsylvania to Ohio, traveling the length of the Buckeye State through gently rolling landscapes. With Lori’s blessing, I stayed in three airbnb rentals and took the opportunity to see new sights, experience unfamiliar places, and visit with new and old friends in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Cool concerts: There were only three this year involving pop artists, but each was satisfying in its own right.

Got to see Jackson Browne at Edgefield in August and he was outstanding. A month earlier, I saw the Dixie Chicks at a Clark County amphitheater just north of Portland and they were exceptional. Their July concert came at a time when I was feeling down, given a spasm of fatal shootings of both civilians and cops in three states.

In November, I saw Liz Longley, a favorite singer-songwriter, for the second time in 18 months, this time in the intimate space of the Alberta Rose Theater.

Excellent books: All that free time I had in the first few months of the year enabled me to dive into the world of literature. Although I slowed down considerably after going back to work, I still managed to plow through 15 books.

They ran the gamut — everything from a young reader books about a transgender youth (“George” by Alex Gino) and a deaf baseball player (“The William Hoy Story” by Nancy Churnin) to a gritty collection of stories about the Motor City (“Detroit” by Charlie LeDuff) to a rape survivor’s memoir (“Lucky” by Alice Sebold) to a sweeping novel about race, culture and class in Nigeria and the United States (“Americanah” by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie.

There was lots more by the likes of John Updike, Steig Larsson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lauren Groff, Celeste Ng, Anne Hillerman and Robert Goodlick. You’ll find a synopsis of each one here: Books & Literature.

PIFF: Early in the year, I joined the ranks of volunteers at the 39th annual Portland International Film Festival. In exchange for helping to greet patrons, take tickets, etc., I got to see six movies for free at three theaters during the month of February.

It was a lot of fun and I’d like to do it again, but not this year. Too much going on with my three part-time jobs to even consider it.

Urban hikes: Another luxury during the first half of the year was exploring my own city with the help of a great guidebook, “Portland Hill Walks” by Laura O. Foster.

I made a routine of selecting a route that took me into mostly unfamiliar neighborhoods, where I learned a lot about the city’s history, geography and demographics. Hard to say which were my favorites, but I do recall the pleasant surprise of discovering Marshall Park in Southwest Portland and getting thoroughly soaked when I hiked through the jewel that is Washington Park.

Island getaways: We made it up to our cabin on Orcas Island three times. Each time is like opening a valve and releasing the stress that comes with living in a city of 632,000 people and an urban area of 2.4 million. Compare that to maybe 2,000 folks total on Orcas.

We’re blessed to have a place where we can hike and kayak, read, play board games, feed the birds and watch old movies — all in a beautiful place that offers Solitude with a capital S.

This year, we enjoyed a parade and community potluck on the Fourth of July weekend and hosted our longtime friends, Bob and Deborah Ehlers. We did our best to make their three-night stay a memorable one, with excursions to Doe Bay, Eagle Lake and Mount Constitution.

Pets: We lost our beloved Otto in July, shortly after our final trip to the island and just a week before Emalyn was born. He was a Jack Russell Terrier, 11 years old, blessed with a sweet disposition, and loved by all who knew him. Otto was especially close to Lori and had earned the status of “The Fourth Child.” Fittingly, he died of an an enlarged heart.

Before Otto died, he schooled little Charlotte, our Terrier-Pug-Chihuahua mix, in the ways of the world. She misses him, for sure, but she has blossomed as the sole focus of our canine attention. Charlotte and I survived a run-in with two pit bulls at a dog park, but she’s healed completely and is becoming more social with other dogs and humans.

Mabel, now the senior pet, continues to rule the roost in her own bedroom, a sweet brown tabby who refuses to come downstairs and interact with Charlotte.

Voices of August: No recap would be complete without mention of my annual guest blog project and post-publication meetup. For six years now, I’ve opened up the blog to a different writer each day during the month of August. It’s a wonderful thing to see — a diverse group of friends, relatives and co-workers from all over the country (and even abroad) each taking a turn writing about an issue or an experience that never fails to entertain, inform or resonate with an online audience.

This year’s VOA gathering was held at a Northeast Portland brewpub not far from our home and drew folks from three states, including my compadre, Al Rodriguez, and his lovely wife (and first-time VOA contributor), Elizabeth Lee.

***

hillary-buttonLike the other 65 million-plus Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton, I wish we were inaugurating the nation’s first female president. Instead, I’m left to hope that in 2017 we can endure the worst of what a Trump presidency can bring and begin building a coalition that returns the White House to someone we can put our trust in.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Lessons learned from Minidoka

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An Exclusion Order posted at First and Front Streets directs the removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the first San Francisco section to be affected by the evacuation during World War II. (National Archives)

U.S. history books tell us of the abominable sin known as slavery and of the genocidal displacement of Native Americans at the hands of European explorers and colonists.

But if you’re like me, your textbooks might not have been as forthcoming about another huge stain on America’s history of human rights violations.

I’m talking about the forced removal and imprisonment of nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II — an action taken against U.S. citizens under the authority of an Executive Order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I’m reasonably familiar with the overarching narrative.

In February 1942, little more than two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government created a military “exclusion zone” along the Pacific Coast, where it feared an attack by the Japanese military.

Law-abiding citizens lost their farms, homes and businesses and, with no due process, were rounded up in August 1942 and sent to one of 10 concentration camps in seven states, where they lived in hastily built compounds surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire fencing.

The camps were shut down after three years, after Japan’s surrender, with no reports whatsoever of treason or enemy threat from within. Eventually, in 1988, Congress formally apologized and President Ronald Reagan signed a bill authorizing $1.25 billion in reparations – $20,000 to each of the approximately 60,000 internees then still alive.

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A splendid book published by Boise State University in partnership with College of Southern Idaho.

Knowing the big picture of that mass incarceration is one thing. Learning and absorbing the details of that humiliating experience is another thing altogether.

Thanks to an elegant book I’ve just read, loaned to me by a friend who endured wartime incarceration with her parents and siblings, I’ve got a much better understanding now.

Let me introduce you to “Surviving Minidoka,” a beautifully written and illustrated book examining the legacy of WWII Japanese American incarceration.

There’s no better time to reflect on the lessons of that era than now, given our president-elect’s campaign rhetoric about a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries and possibly a database for all Muslims in the United States.

***

The Minidoka Relocation Center, also known as Hunt Camp after the nearby town of Hunt, was located in the arid sagebrush of south-central Idaho, about 130 miles southeast of Boise, the state’s capital and largest city.

Minidoka was operated by the U.S. War Relocation Authority and held more than 9,000 people from Washington, Oregon and Alaska in tarpaper barracks. “Surviving Minidoka” tells the story of that shameful period in U.S. history, tracing the long history of discrimination against Asian immigrants and the lingering bigotry that led military leaders to believe — wrongly — that Japanese American citizens living on the West Coast would be loyal to the Japanese Empire

The book’s 10 chapters, written by historians, artists, landscape architects, essayists and camp survivors, give voice to the men, women and children who were rounded up like cattle during WWII.

Poems, paintings, political cartoons and historical photographs document racist sentiments of the times while also chronicling internees’ efforts to make the best out of a deplorable situation.

On Minidoka’s 33,000 acres there were schools, fire stations, a hospital, a library, food stores, ballparks, theatres, vegetable gardens and traditional Japanese-style ornamental gardens and ponds.

Astoundingly, the federal government required all eligible Nisei men (second-generation) to register for the draft. Though dozens resisted and were convicted of draft evasion, nearly 1,000 men and women from Minidoka volunteered or were drafted for military service in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service, Women’s Army Corps or the Army Nurse Corps, according to the book.

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Fumi Onodera, 20, points at the names of her three brothers, Ko, Kaun, and Satoru, who were listed on the Minidoka Honor Roll of Japanese Americans serving in the U. S. Army. (Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library)

The 442nd, made up nearly entirely of Japanese Americans, had nearly 14,000 men serve in the combat unit, and together won 21 Medals of Honor and 9.486 Purple Hearts during WWII. So much for disloyalty.

***

What’s most troubling about this aspect of our history is that so much of it took place in West Coast cities and communities where I’ve lived or otherwise know very well. It’s painful to see dozens of photos documenting the uprooting of Japanese families and business owners from places like San Francisco, Oakland and Salinas, California; Portland and Hood River, Oregon; Seattle, Everett and Bainbridge Island, Washington.

I’m ashamed that the campus of San Jose State University, my alma mater, served as a processing center for internees in California. I’m appalled that the Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup, just outside Tacoma, also served as an “assembly center.” And I’m chagrined to read about racist resort owners mistreating a family of recently released internees from Seattle who had hoped to vacation for a couple of days in Cannon Beach, Oregon.

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Residents of Japanese ancestry file forms containing personal data, two days before evacuation, at a Wartime Civil Control Administration station. (National Archives)

Though I only recently read the book, Minidoka has been on my mind for months.

A Japanese American friend and his 12-year-old daughter both wrote essays for my blog following their experiences this summer visiting Minidoka and another internment camp in Wyoming.

Related reading from Voices of August: American internment in the shadows of Yellowstone by Aki Mori; My visit to Heart Mountain by Midori Mori.

Not long thereafter, Lori and I went with friends to see a splendid play about Gordon Hirabayashi, the University of Washington student who was sent to prison in 1942 for willfully violating a wartime Army curfew. Our friend Nancy, who was just 3 years old when she and her family were sent to Minidoka, brought her copy of “Surviving Minidoka” and left it with me to peruse at my leisure. I finally got to it this month.

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Young visitors explore an original WWII internment barrack that was located at a county fairground and returned to Minidoka. There were 432 such barracks at the camp. (Photograph by Aki Mori)

As I prepare to return the book, I’m grateful for the exposure to so many stories of ordinary people who stoically endured the camps and yet emerged with a sense of dignity that no government could stamp out.

I am struck by the wisdom of Frank Yoshikazu Kitamoto, a camp survivor who was 2 years old when the FBI arrested 34 men, including his father, in a 1942 raid near Seattle:

“Anger and defensiveness cause a vicious circle of fear. As human beings we can make the choice of responding in a fearful way or we can overcome our fears to think outward. No matter how hard people may try, they can never, never, never take away a person’s authentic power. Understanding this is a key to being able to look outward from one’s self. Human rights are love based and have no exceptions.”

Lessons from a mother

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Since I began teaching in late September, I’ve had no time for a book and very little time for  magazine articles.

So when classes ended last week, I treated myself to a simple pleasure: a morning cup of joe, my recliner and The New Yorker. Flipping through the latest copy of the magazine, I was drawn to an article headlined “The Teacher.”

How could I resist?

Although I still have a final exam to give this week, I was feeling pretty good about how things went during my first stab at teaching an 11-week course in communications.

What insights might I gain from a first-person essay written by the son of a teacher?

At least three, it turns out.

The author, James Wood, opens with a scene from his mother’s funeral (she was 87), then segues to a discussion of how teaching ran in his family (his father also was a teacher and his mother’s grandfather was in charge of a small school in the Scottish countryside) and of what he learned about his mother after her death.

It’s clear-eyed prose, written with the precision of a New Yorker staff writer and book critic who also teaches literary criticism at Harvard. Drawing on childhood memories, Wood recalls the selfless sacrifice his “perpetually impoverished parents” made, each working multiple jobs, so that their three children could attend expensive boarding schools. An unnecessary sacrifice, he says, because a grammar school not far from town sent kids every year to Oxford and Cambridge.

But his mother was determined that her two boys and one daughter would have nothing but the finest private education, even if it meant she worked a Saturday job at a bookstore cash register in addition to teaching English at a girls’ high school.

My three takeaways?

1. A glimpse of a Northern European culture I know little of. Wood describes his mother as a hard worker from the lower middle class with a demeanor reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher.

In many ways, she was an almost stereotypically Scottish mother (the goyish version of the Jewish caricature)—passionate, narrow, judgmental, always aspiring. Her children were her artifacts, through which she created the drama of her own restless ambitions. These ambitions were moral and social. She wanted us to be morally successful, to get the best possible grades from the Great Examiner.

It’s uncanny that the description popped up at the same time Lori and I were laboring through a Netflix film about a young Scottish girl in the early 20th century, overcoming hardships in a household headed by a father whose disciplinarian ways spilled over into physical and emotional abuse. Not that I’m saying all Scots are this way…

2. A reminder of my own mother. Wood describes receiving an email from one of his mother’s former students, an accomplished poet who was one of her great success stories. He writes:

All sons adore their complicated mothers, in one way or another. But how powerful to encounter, from someone else, the beautifully uncomplicated statement “I adored her.”

As a young boy and continuing into my mid-20s, I thought the world of my mother. In my mind, she was the standout among six sisters in a family of migrant farmworkers — smart, funny, feisty, pretty, a hard worker, and utterly devoted to my two sisters and me. Deprived of the opportunity to attend even high school, she encouraged me at a young age to do well in school and go to college.

After Lori and I became parents, complications ensued and things were never the same. Differing views over religion and child-rearing were exacerbated by distance. Toward the end of life, she became more reclusive, less physically active, and focused on a variety of ailments, both real and imagined.

I loved her, of course, and I knew she adored me. But “complicated” hardly begins to explain our relationship.

3. An even greater appreciation of the teaching profession. Having just concluded a course that demanded of me far more time than I imagined, I am fully aware that one goes into this line of work not for the money, but to have an impact on others’ lives. Wood writes:

I had a sense that my mother was a good teacher, but I had no idea that she had been such an influential one, and in the very area I had chosen, and struggled to succeed in, often in the face of parental doubts. She had been not just a good teacher but a crucial literary encourager, and I had not been able to see this well enough…

Through the eyes of others and only after her death is Wood able to see the gift his mother gave — not to just her students but to him as well. I can only hope to have the same positive influence on the young men and women who come through my classroom.

Read Wood’s essay: “The Teacher”

Illustration: Gerard Dubois

A legacy of courage

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Gordon Hirabayashi was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle when the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, plunged the United States into World War II.

Barely two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the imprisonment of thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry.

FDR’s order, signed February 19, 1942, sanctioned the rounding up of thousands of families up and down the West Coast who were sent to camps in ten states and held until after the war’s end.

Hirabayashi, born and raised on American soil, refused to go, believing he and his family posed no threat to the U.S. government. Two others, Minori Yasui of Hood River, Oregon, and Fred Korematsu of Oakland, California, also resisted the curfew order  All three men took their battle to the U.S. Supreme Court and all three lost.

President Gerald R. Ford issued an official apology for Executive Order 9066 in 1976, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the trio of dissenters received justice in the form of overturned or vacated convictions.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Hirabayashi’s story came to life. Lori and I and four friends saw the play “Hold These Truths,” produced by Portland Center Stage at The Armory in Northwest Portland. It was a one-man play, a 90-minute performance with no intermission, and it was splendid.

Ryun Yu was marvelous as Gordon Hirabayashi. From the opening scene to the last, Yu channeled the intelligence, humor, wisdom and fortitude that characterized the young man who stood by his principles in the face of racial animosity.

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After the war, Gordon Hirabayashi continued his education at the University of Washington, earning his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D degrees in sociology  .

Simply by donning one pair of eyeglasses versus another, and by wearing a sport coat or a cardigan sweater, a bow tie or a necktie, Yu seamlessly moved in and out of time, with only two wooden chairs as props. He drew us into his character and into his lonely fight against an executive order that led to the forced removal of nearly 120,000 people from their homes.

An estimated two-thirds of those who were rounded up were U.S. citizens, including our friend Nancy, whose family was among the 9,000 people sent to live behind barbed wire at the Minidoka internment camp in south central Idaho. She and her husband attended the play with us.

In the program notes, Director Chris Coleman said of Hirabayashi: “His story is one of immense courage and moral conviction, as stirring as it is infuriating.”

So true. And to that, I would add “inspiring.”

I can only admire the sense of right and wrong that compelled a young man, then 25, to defy a wartime order that sent people to camps in 10 states across the country.

Decades later, hindsight allows us to condemn the camps as a horrible civil rights violation.

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 Gordon Hirabayashi taught at the American University in Beirut, the American University in Cairo and in Canada at the University of Edmonton, where he lived.

The U.S. government eventually paid reparations to those who were imprisoned. And all three of the wartime resisters received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States — Korematsu in 1998, and the other two posthumously in 2012 and 2013.

In a 2012 obituary that followed Hirabayashi’s death at age 93, The New York Times noted, “The Hirabayashi, Yasui and Korematsu cases were revisited in the 1980s after Peter Irons, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, found documents indicating that the federal government, in coming before the Supreme Court, had suppressed its own finding that Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were not, in fact, threats to national security.”

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One of 432 World War II internment barracks that were located at a county fairground and returned to Minidoka, about 130 miles southeast of Boise, Idaho. (Photo by Aki Mori)

It was somehow fitting that Lori and I would see this play one day after we had participated in a Saturday night discussion of what the American Dream means to us.

With the presidential election now only a week away, the timing also could not have been better as a reminder of what harm can come from demonizing an entire class of people based on their race, religion or national origin. We all know which one of the candidates has singled out Muslims, Syrian refugees and Mexican immigrants as threats to the U.S.

The play continues through November 13. If you live in the Portland area, I urge you to go see it. Ticket information is here.

Photographs: Densho Encyclopedia

Related reading from Voices of August: American internment in the shadows of Yellowstone by Aki Mori; My visit to Heart Mountain by Midori Mori.

Race, class and romance

I’m a little late to the party, but I have no hesitation adding to the mountain of praise for “Americanah,” the lush and captivating novel by Nigerian author Chimananda Ngozi Adichie.

Published in 2013, the novel won the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award and landed on the “best books of the year” lists of NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other leading publications.

I can see why.

At 588 pages, the novel toggles back and forth between Nigeria, the United States and the United Kingdom in telling the story of a young couple who fall in love as high school students, then fall out of touch as they travel to separate countries for education and work. Years later, Ifemelu and Obinze reconnect in their native Nigeria, drawn to each other once again but facing utterly different life circumstances that stand in the way of their being together. Can they rekindle what they once had, even after they’ve pursued relationships with other people?

It’s a love story, yes. But it is so much more, as so many critics have noted.

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The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Lagos in 2008.

“Americanah” is a book that explores race, culture and class from the African and African-American perspectives, touching on skin color and stereotypes. It’s a book about identity and how it is shaped and tested in ways both obvious and subtle. It’s also a book about family and how those complicated relationships can variously generate feelings of support, frustration, estrangement and belonging.

Adichie writes with such clarity and nuance that you can absorb the meaning of little details at the same time you’re fully cognizant of the book’s overarching themes. Pitch-perfect dialogue and descriptive writing make you feel as if you are right there with her main characters in Lagos, London, New Haven and anywhere else the story goes

On the surface, the novel pivots on the question of what it means to be black in America and Nigeria. It’s not until Ifemelu arrives in the United States to attend college that she realizes she is being judged by the color of her skin, something that was never an issue in her homeland. She struggles to find work and an apartment on account of her race. Later, she takes up with two boyfriends, one white and one black, all the while striving to establish an identity of her own.

Likewise, the book examines the challenges faced by Obinze as an undocumented immigrant in Britain. Where his future seemed bright and limitless in Nigeria, he is forced to live in the shadows in London, dealing with all the fears and indignities that come with the territory. For lack of a passport, he is rendered vulnerable and powerless, forced to conceal his identity and unable to control his destiny.

americanahAdichie, 39, writes with authority, verve and great empathy. She won a McArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2008 and has written two other books and a short story collection. I’d love to read more of her work but my bookshelf is overflowing with novels waiting their turn.

I close with an excerpt. In this scene, Obinze is at a dinner party at the fashionable north London home of his old classmate, Emenike, and his wife, Georgina, a successful lawyer. Flush with red wine, their guests are discussing whether refugees should be allowed to settle in Britain.

“Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

That is powerful prose.

Photograph: George Osodi, Associated Press.

What happened to Lydia Lee?

It’s 6:30 a.m. on May 3, 1977. In a small town in Ohio, a 16-year-old girl is late for breakfast.

Her father is driving to work, her older brother yawning on the stairs, her younger sister hunching over cornflakes in a corner of the kitchen. Her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and the girl’s marked-up physics homework next to her cereal bowl.

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know yet.”

And with that tantalizing opener, you’re sucked into the marvelous debut novel by Celeste Ng titled “Everything I Never Told You.”

Yes, it’s about a girl’s mysterious death.

everything i never told youIt’s about the tension between being overlooked and wanting to blend in, about unrealized hopes and dreams, about family secrets. Most of all, it is about all those things that go unspoken over years and years between spouses, between siblings, between parents and children.

All of this takes place in the household of a reclusive Chinese American family in fictional Middlewood, Ohio.

Published in 2014, “Everything I Never Told You” was named a Best Book of the Year by more than a dozen publications and won praise from The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

It is that good. Marie Claire magazine said it calls to mind Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones,” a story about a family devastated by the murder of a 14-year-old girl in suburban 1970s Pennsylvania.

In this case, Ng’s novel revolves around the disappearance of Lydia Lee, the middle child and her parents’ clear favorite. Even her older brother and younger sister realize she is the focus and they behave accordingly. Nathan retreats to his room, where he can indulge his love of astronauts, while little Hannah hides quietly in plain sight, so overlooked that the mother realizes one evening she has set out only four plates for dinner, not five.

The parents have plenty of baggage. James is a professor at the local college and can’t shake childhood memories of being teased because of his Asian features. Marilyn, his blonde wife, is tormented by the loss of a career she never had due to marrying James and dropping out of college to raise a family.

Separately, they project their hopes, dreams and regrets onto poor Lydia. When she goes missing, the cracks in this dysfunctional household become canyons. Each chapter takes you inside the mind of a different character, trying to puzzle out where Lydia might have gone. As they replay past events, conversations and gestures in a search for meaning, the present reveals a “normal” family to be anything but.

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Celeste Ng, a writer who grew up in a family of scientists.

Ng writes beautifully — crisp sentences, pitch-perfect dialogue, carefully crafted scenes. In an interview included at the end of the book, she acknowledges her upbringing greatly influenced the narrative. Her parents came to the United States from Hong Kong straight to the Midwest. Celeste grew up outside Pittsburgh in the 1980s and outside Cleveland in the early 1990s, and most of the time the Ngs were the only Asians in the community. Like most Asian Americans, the family experienced outright discrimination, she said.

“More insidious than those memories of outright hostility, though, and maybe more powerful, are the constant low-level reminders that you’re different,” she said. “In the novel, though, I didn’t want to explore just racial difference — there are all kinds of ways like feeling like an outsider.”

To her credit, Ng explores those differences in each member of the Lee family. The result is a book that makes my Top Three list of books I’ve read so far this year.

Thanks to my youngest child, Jordan, for recommending the book to me.

Read The New York Times review here.

Photograph: Kevin Day

 

 

Books and beer

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A Dream Team of trivia quiz masters. From right: team captain Casey Jones, Simone Rede,  George Rede, Lori Rauh Rede, Kyndall Mason, Sarah Feldman (Casey’s wife), Sarah Jones (Casey’s sister).

Take a favorite activity (reading), combine it with a favorite beverage (a local microbrew), top it with a good cause (a literacy program for children) and you’ve got an irresistible combination.

Now throw in a trivia quiz, a raffle, and the company of good people and you’ve got the recipe for some serious fun.

All of that is what drew Lori and me out to a Northeast Portland brewpub last night.

On a pleasant summer evening, we joined a crowd of people attending a fundraiser for First Book Portland, a nonprofit that provides new books to low-income children.

We were invited to the Breweries for Books event by Casey Jones and his wife Sarah, a young couple we met a couple years ago at a summer party hosted by longtime friends. Casey is a member of the advisory board that raises money to provide book grants to existing community programs (such as Head Start) serving children from low-income families.

First Book is a national organization and the Portland chapter was founded in 1998.

Casey knows of my fondness for books. In fact, he paid me a visit when I held my own used book sale last month to raise money for a similar cause. I didn’t hesitate to return the favor when he invited me to the First Book event at Migration Brewing Co.

Also joining us last night: Casey’s sister, Sarah (yes, another Sarah), our daughter Simone and daughter-in-law Kyndall.

Together we named ourselves the Dream Team and took on four other teams in a literacy-and-beer themed trivia quiz. Above the din of conversation, we fielded questions about  literature, sports, science, beer, pop culture and other topics. I thought we’d be shouting out answers but the format was different — and better. After each question, team members had the opportunity to talk among themselves before committing to a single, written answer.

After four rounds, scores were tallied and, guess what, the Dream Team took first place. We promptly donated our prize — 50 percent of the trivia contest entry fees — back to the organization. The winner of the raffle did the same. Migration Brewing donated 10 percent of the evening’s profits. And Kate Berube, a local children’s author and illustrator, did the same from her book sales

I guess you’d call that a win-win-win-win situation. All for the benefit of young readers.

Want to know more about First Book and help out, too?

Read more: firstbookportland.org

Save the date: October 26 for the fifth annual Wine-ing for Literacy event, a wine tasting and silent auction at Olympic Mills Commerce Center, 107 S.E. Washington St.

 

Atticus: The little giant

Admirably audacious or practically insane?

The question kept coming to mind as I read “Following Atticus.”

It’s a first-person account of the most unlikely tale. A self-described middle-aged, overweight, out of shape, scared-of-heights man with no romantic interests is the publisher, editor and sole employee of a monthly newspaper in Newburyport, Massachusetts, a coastal town of about 17,000 people roughly 35 miles northeast of Boston.

When a source, a good friend, dies, the chubby newspaperman decides to honor her by pledging to climb all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot peaks.

Not just once but twice.
Not during summer but during the winter.
Not alone but with the dog that is his constant companion.

That would be Atticus M. Finch, a 20-pound miniature schnauzer .

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The way author Tom Ryan tells it, he and Atticus are a common sight around Newburyport, virtually inseparable.  He takes the dog with him on his daily rounds, into city hall, into local restaurants and shops. Everyone, it seems, has a kind word and/or a treat for Atticus, even if they don’t care much for his owner.

I suppose I should say here that I had never heard of Ryan or his story. A friend, a dog lover of the first degree, bought the book for me, thinking i might enjoy an upbeat story about a man and his dog. Like Ryan, I’m a journalist and a blogger and pretty fond of my own four-legged friend, Charlotte.

Never climbed a mountain, though, let alone in winter.

Anyway, I dove in.

Some 273 pages later, I had finished the book. Clearly, it was more than just a recounting of an ambitious goal to climb four dozen mountains — twice — in 90 days. It was a story about an amazing little dog known as The Little GIant and an extraordinary friendship between man and animal.

It was a story about a mismatched pair showing they were capable of physical feats just about anyone would believe was impossible. Climbing in winter’s darkness by the light of the moon or Ryan’s headlamp, they would often trek up a mountain alone. Arriving at the summit, they’d sometimes meet with howling, biting winds that chilled them to the bone and made it nearly impossible to see.

Somehow this little creature would lead the way, slow but steady, while the lumbering Ryan, slow and sweaty, would follow.

Tom & Atticus

The mountain climbers: Atticus M. Finch and Tom Ryan.

In the process, Ryan says, they forged a bond of trust beyond imagining. Amid the most brutal winter conditions in the most remote New England wilderness, they depended on each other as any two humans would, and shared moments of solitude and introspection that transcended their biological differences.

Beyond that, it’s the story of a man seeking to repair broken relationships with his father and siblings, of a man reinventing himself and discovering his life’s purpose in nature, all with the help of a little dog.

“When I reached the summit of North Hancock, Atticus wasn’t waiting for me,” Ryan writes. “But I knew where he was. I pushed to the left through the snowy pines and saw him sitting on the ledge. It was a fine day, warm and calm, and he sat the way he did in the summer months, a little Buddha looking out at the Osceolas, watching the late-afternoon sun paint them a golden yellow. I regarded him for a while, not wanting to interrupt.

“I watched that little dog sitting placidly on a mountaintop in winter, miles away from the life we’d come to know, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be doing, and that’s when it struck me: Our quest was about so much more than reaching 96 mountains or raising money for a good cause. It was about us and what we shared and saw together and what we were becoming. It was one of those moments when you realize this is truly the time of your life.”

Far fetched? Audacious? Insane?

If you love animals, especially dogs, maybe you’ll want to read this book and decide for yourself.

Atticus-at-the-top-of-mount-washington

Atticus at the top of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast.

My takeaways?

— I marveled at what Tom and Atticus set out to accomplish,  even if I thought they were crazy to try.

— The quality of writing was a pleasant surprise. Ryan brings a literary sensibility to his work, often quoting Thoreau, Emerson and Frost.

— I had trouble imagining them doing this. Not so much the how but the where. I’m used to seeing Mount Hood and other Oregon peaks, rising 10,000 feet and higher. Ryan spent his time climbing peaks less than half that size. On some outings, he and Atticus traversed them and completed three or four peaks in a single day. It’s hard for me to visualize that.

— I’ve got to respect the man. It’s easy to go through the motions of everyday life. It’s much harder to step out of that comfort zone and commit to doing something extraordinary.  Something admirably audacious.  Even if it’s practically insane.

Hats off to Tom Ryan and his buddy Atticus M. Finch.

Photograph at summit: willmydoghateme.com

Detroit: A ruined city

I’ve always thought I liked Detroit. But I now realize what I liked was the idea of Detroit.

Credit the difference to “Detroit,” a hard-hitting book published in 2013 by Charlie LeDuff, a former New York Times reporter who returned to his hometown to write for the struggling Detroit News. “Detroit” chronicles the sorry state of the Motor City and how it got that way.

LeDuff grew up in a working class suburb of Detroit and his mother and brothers still live in the area. He quit the Times in 2007, then joined the News hoping to write stories that would reveal how a once-mighty city fell into a decades-long tailspin. This isn’t a book about macroeconomics or geopolitics nor is it a feel-good story with a happy ending, LeDuff says in the prologue. “It is a book of reportage,” he says. “A memoir of a reporter returning home — only he cannot find the home he once knew.”

detroit coverThe city that gave us the automobile, unions that helped secure family-wage jobs and benefits, and the enduring Motown sound today is a shell of itself. Since 1950, Detroit has lost nearly two-thirds of its population, sliding from a peak of nearly 1.9 million residents to about 700,000 today.

Once the richest city in America, Detroit is known today as a center of misery — a place plagued by crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, dropouts and foreclosures. Layered atop it all is a political culture defined by cronyism and corruption, with city council members and a recent mayor — the disgraced Kwame Kilpatrick — having been sent off to prison.

With a reporter’s nose for news and a gift for storytelling, LeDuff presents a compelling portrait of the city’s fall from grace. If you’re like me, you may think you know the Detroit story — a city wracked by race riots in 1943 and 1967, a city that’s become 90 percent black after decades of white flight, a city that nearly went bankrupt earlier this decade, and whose Big Three automakers had to beg Washington for a bailout after the auto industry collapsed during the 2008 recession.

But again, if you’re like me, you don’t really know the depth of dysfunction in Detroit.

In 287 compelling pages, LeDuff traces the city’s recent history and shares the backstory behind some of the most memorable stories and columns he produced at the News. Some material in the book appeared in different form in the News and Mother Jones magazine. But it is fleshed out with additional reporting that calls out the scoundrels while also singling out the unsung heroes and ordinary citizens who strive against all odds to make Detroit a better place.

*

My affection for Detroit began more than 30 years ago. I was among a dozen U.S. journalists chosen to spend a sabbatical year at the University of Michigan in nearby Ann Arbor. During my 10 months living in one of the nation’s great college towns, I experienced Detroit as an occasional visitor and nearly always as part of a group. We toured the Detroit Institute of Arts. We dined on lamb and sipped ouzo at Greektown restaurants. I caught a Saturday afternoon baseball game at venerable Tiger Stadium and began a fan from that day on, enjoying the thrill of seeing the Tigers win the World Series in the fall of 1984, just months after I had returned home to Oregon.

I would return frequently on behalf of The Oregonian, delighted to recruit several students from the U of M, Michigan State, and Wayne State to Portland, and happy to establish friendships with many more who went on to succeed in other newsrooms. On one trip, I visited Hitsville, U.S.A., the Motown-themed museum where so many R&B artists launched their careers.

But it was a false picture. I knew how to get from the airport to Greektown, a safe haven with familiar hotels and restaurants, but little else. I wasn’t exposed to the urban wasteland described by LeDuff.

*

I’ve been a LeDuff fan for years. He’s a drinking, smoking, cussing old-school reporter with blue-collar roots who started his newspaper career at the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal, landed a summer internship at the Times, and went on to become an award-winning staff writer.

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Charlie LeDuff

I discovered his book by chance. While waiting for a late-night flight to Detroit as part of my Midwest baseball road trip, I noticed the paperback on a table at an airport bookstore and snatched it up. Good call.

“Detroit” is one of those books where you wind up with more than a dozen dog-eared pages. The stories are so arresting, the writing so vivid, that you can’t help but savor these scenes.

Two examples:

— The city, what’s left of it, burns night after night. Nature — in the form of pheasants,, hawks, foxes, coyotes and wild dogs — had stepped in to fill the vacuum, reclaiming a little more of the landscape each day. The streets were empty and cratered. The skyscrapers were holograms. I stood and admired a cottonwood sapling growing out of the roof of the Lafayette Building. This was like living in Pompeii, except the people weren’t covered in ash. We were alive.”

— We sat in a local diner, a rundown joint with walls the color of an old man’s teeth. I watched the detective tear into a chili dog. He weighed 350 pounds and was trying that meat-only diet.

“The whole shit is corrupt from top to bottom,” he said through his mustache and mouthful of dog. “Cops to judges. The fucking radios in the cars don’t even work. Why you think so many guys are leaving the department?”

Reading “Detroit” was the equivalent of taking the Ice Bucket Challenge. The naive picture I had of the city was doused with a bucketful of grim reality. I knew things were bad. I just hadn’t realized they’d been this bad for so long and gotten even worse.

It’s hard to feel optimistic about Detroit’s future. Like other Midwest cities, it’s experiencing a renaissance of sorts.

But “Detroit” isn’t about happy endings. It’s about looking at what went horribly wrong, at who and what destroyed the city, and what we should all know about a city that played such a critical role in the U.S and world economy.

Photograph: lansingonlinenews.com