Triangle: The Fire That Changed America – David Von Drehle

triangleDuring my first semester at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice many years ago, I attended a class in the field of fire science as part of my graduate degree track.  In the class, we, were required to study one of the deadliest fires in New York City history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911.  Our professor warned us that the story was deeply disturbing and that the detailed descriptions of the victims would be beyond grisly.  However, he also explained that as part of the basis for a career in fire protection, we needed to understand the life safety code and the stories of how and why fire protection has continued to advance. Today, nearly twenty-three years later, I still recall the fire and its impact on workplace safety.  But I decided to read this book by David Von Drehle to revisit the fire and perhaps learn something I did not know previously.  And what I found within its pages, is a story much longer story than the one I had learned of over two decades ago.  And similar to when I first read about the fire in college, I also felt chills go down my spine this time around.   

The author does not go into the fire right away but takes a slightly different approach in explaining working conditions for garment factory workers, which included a disproportionate amount of women.  Workers’ rights were not as widespread as today and in fact, it was not until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) New Deal policies that the right of private workers to unionize became federal law.  Prior to this, employees in the private sector were often at the mercy of their employers. Working conditions were dire and low wages the norm.  However, workers were not inclined to accept these conditions long term and as we see in the story, they began to resist what they felt were inhumane conditions. Many of the garment workers were European immigrants, some of whom spoke little to no English.  They were easy prey coming off boats arriving in Ellis Island and willing to work for low but steady wages.  Two European entrepreneurs named Max Blanck and Isaac Harris formed the Triangle Waist Company and chose the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building located at 23-29 Washington Place.  Today it is known as the Brown Building and is part of New York University (NYU).  They begin to hire locals, many of them young women whose first language is Yiddish.  The author introduces us to many of them and allows us to learn their stories, some of which contain obscure parts lost to history.  Many of them are younger than twenty-five years of age.  Some are single, others married or engaged but all of them are eager to earn wages to support their families which were sometimes struggling to survive.  On March 25, 1911, their monotonous routine was changed forever after a fire broke out due to a series of events that would be discovered in the wake of the tragedy. 

I must warn readers that the story is very dark and there are no “happy endings”. This case study is about a deadly fire that took the lives of one hundred forty six men and women.  Due to the material contained on each floor, the fire had plenty of fuel and the lack of adequate fire protection only served to accelerate the spread of the flames and smoke.  When the workers realized a fire had started, all hell literally broke loose. Through survivors’ testimonies, we are able to piece the story together and witness the frantic activity that commenced as workers tried desperately to escape what became a deathtrap.  And in the three minutes it took for all of this to take place, New York City and America were changed forever.  However, what we learn following the tragedy is equally as important and regrettable.  Drehle points out some very disturbing facts about the owners and previous incidents that should have served as a major warning of what was to come. And this comment about the fire is beyond sobering: 

The Triangle fire of March 25, 1911, was for ninety years the deadliest workplace disaster in New York history—and the most important. Its significance was not simply the number dead. The 146 deaths at the Triangle Waist Company were sensational, but they were not unusual.

But in a city where politics were controlled by the infamous Tammany Hall and corruption was an open secret, compliance was not always high on anyone’s agenda.  But in the wake of the fire, action was swift and notable figures take center stage such as former New York Governor Al Smith 1873-1944) and Francis Perkins (1880-1965) who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945.  As part of the Factory Investigation Committee, she and her colleagues would embark on mission to reform factories all across America. Their story is included here as well. 

The infamous owners of the company do not escape scrutiny and the author gives a summary of their trial.  Represented by famed trial lawyer Max Steuer (1870-1940) the duo mounts a defense to escape conviction but they would never again achieve the success they had prior to the fire.  And the statements given by survivors, some of which are included in the summary of the trial highlight the negligence by the two as the bosses of the factory.  During the trial, dozens of witnesses were called including a fire chief whose statements about what he witnessed upon arriving at the scene will make readers recoil in shock and disbelief.  The memories they recall are not for the faint at heart. But they are necessary even today to understand why workplace safety is so critical. The trial’s ending is another turn in the story and the efforts of the survivors’ families serve as a last turn at the plate.  As the book concludes, Blanck and Harris fade into obscurity but the fire that occurred  at their factory continues to live on in the annals of American history. 

If you are a New York City history buff you may already know this story.  And if you live in the Big Apple such as myself, you have probably walked past the Asch building hundreds of times without realizing what took place there many years ago.  It was there that the lives and dreams of the new immigrant workers who had recently arrived in America were destroyed and lost.  And for those that did survive, their lives were never the same again.  Today, the conditions learned of in the book would be unheard of and citations would be forthcoming immediately upon discovery.  However in 1911, New York City was a very different place where tenements and slums were prevalent and employee safety was not a pressing concern.  Drehle explains just how widespread tenements were and what their living conditions were like when he remarks: 

In 1909, there were more than one hundred thousand tenement buildings in New York City. About a third of them had no lights in the hallways, so that when a resident visited the common toilet at night it was like walking lampless in a mine. Nearly two hundred thousand rooms had no windows at all, not even to adjoining rooms. A quarter of the families on the Lower East Side lived five or more to a room. They slept on pallets, on chairs, and on doors removed from their hinges. They slept in shifts.

It was from these tenements that many of the garment factory workers came as they sought employment even if it meant risking their lives. And until the fire, very few had a voice in they manner in which they worked.  Sadly, it took a tragedy such as the Shirtwaist Factory to change the way people thought about protecting them and other employees across America.  Some of you who read this will shed tears as you go through the book and that is okay for I too found myself gripped with emotion as the image of the factory floor consumed by fire formed in my mind.  I also felt the sense of grief that consumed family members as they identified their loved ones on the streets of Manhattan that night.  The magnitude of the fire cannot be overstated, this was an event that truly did change American history.  And the hauntingly true is captured here in a book that will satisfy any reader in search of the truth regarding the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. 


A Promised Land – Barack Obama

20210101_134744I believe that we can all agree that 2020 was a year unlike any other in modern history.  The coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19, brought the world to a grinding halt and disrupted our lives in ways we could have never imagined.  Here in the United States, we saw the pandemic take hold, social unrest erupt and the election of Joe Biden, Jr., as the next President of the United States of America. His swearing in on January 20, will mark the final stage in the transition between administrations. For some, it signals the return of politics largely void of the more extreme rhetoric that has gripped the country in recent years.  Former President Barack Obama, will undoubtedly be called on for support and advice.  I have often thought back to the Obama administration and the decisions that were made on a range of issues. But in particular, I have become even more interested in what life is really like as the Commander-In-Chief.   This book, by the 44th President of the United States is exactly what I had been looking for. Not only does it provide an insider’s view into life within the White House, it is also a sobering account of life as a politician.  There are highs and lows with a lot in between.  

The book is in part an autobiography, with Obama reflecting on his childhood in both Hawaii and Indonesia.  However, the more mundane aspects of his life story are not included.  In fact, his early life is fairly compressed into a small section of the book.  The story picks up the pace when he meets his future wife Michelle, at the law firm of Sidley & Austin in Chicago, IL.  And this description of his first impression of her is one of the highlights in the book: 

Michelle Lavaughn Robinson was already practicing will when we met. She was 25 years old and an associate at Sidley & Austin, the Chicago law firm where I worked the summer after my first year of law school. She was tall, beautiful, funny, outgoing, generous and wickedly smart-and I was smitten almost from the second I saw her.

For Michelle, the story is a little different as she explains in her own book Becoming, which has become one of my favorites for its honesty and ease at which it can put an interested reader.  Curiously, when I have asked my own parents of how they came together, their versions also slightly differ.  Perhaps it is the passage of time or the way in which men and women view their shared history that results in varying versions of the romance between them.  Regardless, the required component of love that is built upon a strong foundation, can be found here and the journey they embark on with two daughters, is nothing short of incredible. 

What I found to be appealing about the book is that Obama does not avoid discussing his own mistakes, transgressions and administrative policies that did not work out.  And like other world leaders, he experienced self-doubt, not in a prohibitive way but as a young politician questioning whether he can make his mark against established political juggernauts.  With the benefit of hindsight, we know today that fate was on his side.  The campaign and the election itself are covered with particular detail paid to the mission his team faced in getting most of America to vote for a largely unknown bi-racial candidate with a Muslim name.  The story reveals a lot about America while showing how far we have come and how far we still have to go.  I am aware that those who do not like the former president will have their opinions formed before reading the book if they choose to do so. And others will have the opposite mindset and possibly be blinded to his faults due to their admiration of him.  Regardless of your political affiliation, if you decide to read this book, you must do so with an open mind.  

Although I remember clearly when he was elected, I still found myself reading with suspense as the primary results came in followed by the general election.  In the wake of his victory, he begins to put together his cabinet and this part of the book will be of high interest to those who are curious as to how presidents assemble their teams.  It is an exhaustive process and the amount of tasks that have to be completed the by the new Commander-In-Chief are staggering.  Personally, the Obamas’ lives are changed forever for better and worse.  He discusses this aspect as well, with high focus on the lack of privacy afforded to a high profile public official.  Further, his ethnicity put him under a more focused microscope and for right-wing figures, he was the perfect target for all that they believed was wrong with America. However, it is clear that deep down, he is a human being like the rest of us who loves action films, a pickup game of basketball and spending time with his family.  It will be easy to see why so many voters felt that they could relate to him on a personal level.  And I found one section of the book in which current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) gives him this advice on being president: 

“Mister President”, Nancy said to me on one call, “I tell my members that what you managed to do in such a short time is historic. I’m just so very proud, really. But right now, the public doesn’t know what you accomplished. They don’t know how awful the Republicans are behaving, just trying to block you and everything. And voters aren’t going to know if you aren’t willing to tell them” 

At times during his presidency, it seemed as Washington was about to go off the rails. But, before that could happen, the country was in dire shape due to a recession in 2008. Obama explains what awaited him as he came into office and how his cabinet tackled the looming financial crisis.  Some readers may be shocked to learn just how close the nation came to financial collapse and why that threat exist today as a pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the American and world’s economies, which are inextricably linked as readers will see.  As Commander-in-Chief, Obama travels the globe and provides us with keen observations of a host of world figures, some of whom remain in power today.  And on the domestic front, the battle with House and Senate Republicans takes center stage with Senator Mitchell McConnell, Jr. (R-KY) filling the role of the antagonist in the story.   Obama never portrays McConnell as being evil and recognizes that the senator from Kentucky is a seasoned veteran of politics.  Also, he makes it a point to keep the focus on legislation and avoids personal attacks and scrutiny of the personal lives of those opposing him.  I felt that this approach was correct and provided the book with the touch of class needed for it be well-received.  Although he is honest about his feelings with regards to their actions, he also acknowledges their strengths and accomplishments.  

Some readers might be expecting a long discussion regarding the current president but Obama only dedicates a short section to Trump, which focuses mainly on the birther conspiracy that gained traction during his first term.  Interestingly, Obama points out something in Trump’s actions that readers will pick up on as they move through that section.  It will make one wonder whether Trump really believes what he says or is simply a master at manipulation and riding the waves of conservative sentiments. 

Towards the end of the book, Obama moves on to the Middle East and the final mission to locate and eliminate Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011).  The reasons for greenlighting the mission and how it developed are explained and left to readers to decide whether it was the right call.   What is clear is that by all accounts, it was the success that had been hoped for.  And while it did not eliminate Islamic terror, it did satisfy one promise he made before getting elected that if he had Bin Laden in the cross-hairs, he would authorize the mission. The book closes after the Bin Laden raid and I had expected more to follow regarding his second term in office. However, if he had included a discussion of the next four years, the book would have grown to a staggering amount of pages and tuned even the most die-hard readers off.  Perhaps there will be another book but only time will tell.  However, for the present time, we have this memoir of a ground-breaking time in United States history. 

ISBN-10: 1524763160
ISBN-13: 978-1524763169



Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 – Susan Campbell Bartoletti

PotatoesJoseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) frequently reminded those he knew that his ancestor had come to America to escape the “potato famine” in Ireland.  While Kennedy was certainly well versed at re-writing his family’s history, the famine did indeed exist and caused death and destruction across southern and western Ireland.  I had known of the famine and it resulting in the mass exodus of Irish families who made new lives in North America.  However, there was much about the famine that I did not know and felt that this book was the perfect choice to learn about a historical event that changed Irish history.  Those of you who follow this blog might recall some of the reviews I have posted regarding the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles”.  Here, I am shifting gears a bit and taking a step back further in time.  And the first question I had for myself before reading this book was just what exactly did happen during the famine?   Author Susan Campbell Bartoletti provides the answer to that question and a wealth of information that will allow any reader of this book to fully understand the cause of the famine and the events that transpired. 

The story begins in 1845 as farmers begin to notice that their potato crops are turning black in color without any reasonable explanation.  Without the benefit of modern science, the farmers were at a loss trying to figure out the cause of the widespread devastation of their crops.  The actual cause is revealed by the author but the farmers could not have known in 1845 that it even existed.  Their response was to try all sorts of remedies that did nothing to stop the growing menace.  The diminishing of potatoes resulted in widespread panic and Britain began to take notice.   The relationship between Ireland and England has always been filled with tension and the cause can be traced back hundreds of years beginning with the actions of Henry VIII (1491-1547) in 1536 that gave the Crown a stronghold over Ireland that lasted until 1921 when the Republic of Ireland was formally created and instituted the persecution of Irish Catholics.   And in 1695, the archaic Penal Laws pushed the Catholic population into further destitution.   By 1845, Henry VIII was a distant memory but Queen Victoria was faced with a dire situation in the Irish colony.   Yet, even she could not have predicted just how deadly the famine would become. 

Before purchasing this book, I honestly do not think I had a fully accurate picture of life in Ireland during the famine. To say that life was hard would be an understatement.  It was nothing short of brutal and the average life expectancy was nothing to admire.  As the famine begins to take hold of Ireland, British officials realize that trouble is brewing and implement a series of relief measures to feed the population and prevent the outbreak of deadly viruses and diseases.  Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) was the first to act upon realizing that the famine was causing a staggering number of deaths.  However, his efforts while heroic in many ways, were not enough and his successor, Lord John Russell (1792-1878) did not share the same beliefs.  Russell diverted from his predecessor’s path and took actions that only enhanced the misery of the Irish Catholics.  But in spite of the laws that are passed by Britain, we are left to ask the question, could the famine have been prevented in the first place?  

Bartoletti highlights a tragic irony of the situation that will make readers question why the famine was not prevented?  As I read through this section, I felt a sense of anger at British officials and empathy for the Irish families that starved and died horrific deaths in living conditions that were beyond sub-human.  And the descriptions of their lives will help readers understand the reason why even today, Irish Catholics want the British government to fully relinquish all control of Irish territory.   You might be wondering what the Irish did to help themselves and take action against Britain? Well, there are interesting facts presented in the book and the section regarding the Young Ireland revolutionary group is of particular interest, for it serves as a premonition to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Republican Army. 

I do want to warn readers that the descriptions of the living conditions in Irish slums is not for the faint at heart.  The author thoroughly discusses each and how the human body is affected until death is the end result.  The memories provided in quotes are equally as macabre and readers sensitive to descriptions of the deceased may have a difficult time with those sections in the book.  However, to fully understand just how deadly the famine was and just how miserable life was for Irish Catholics during the famine, it is necessary to know these stories.  Further, religion enters the picture as well and actions taken by the Protestants who are there to “help” the Catholics are in some cases, repulsive.  The divide is sharp and sadly continues to this day.  These tragic conditions are supported by the actions of Britain that is not sure how to save the Irish and compounds the problem in some situations.  Its official policy of laissez-faire is put under the microscope and its effect on the problem will have readers staring in disbelief.  Of course, there is far more to the story and this book is mainly a primer on the situation.  

Conditions continued to deteriorate and the Irish were left with one choice: emigrate.  Many families do leave Ireland and the journey they take to reach North America is simply surreal.  Large numbers did not survive the journey and the reasons for which are explained in the book. Further, conditions aboard the vessels are explored as well, in addition to the reality that awaited the new Irish settlers.  The romanticized image of Ellis Island welcoming new immigrants to America does not apply here and the reality for the Irish was far darker and without glamour.  The policy of many places against hiring the Irish immigrants is a sad example.  Today, we know that the Irish have prospered in America.  John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) is considered by many to be proof that the Irish had reached the top of American society.  Kennedy is only one person and there are many Irish men and women who have contributed greatly to the American experience.  But for all of them, their ancestors’ lives were stories to be remembered from an era when death was more widespread than life and an entire generation of people were subjected to the tyranny of the Crown’s rule, while enduring unimaginable living conditions in an ugly class-base system. The potato famine amplified the inequality between Irish and British and left Ireland a very different country.  If you are looking to understand the Irish potato famine from start to finish, this is a great place to start. 

“The Great Irish Famine changed Ireland forever. It swept away whole families and villages. It nearly wiped out the Irish language and centuries-old traditions and folk beliefs. Some even say it killed the fairies.” 


Letters and Dispatches 1924-1944: The Man Who Saved Over 100,000 Jews, Centennial Edition – Wallenberg, Raoul

WellenbergI am always on the lookout for stories that I have not yet heard and names of people I am not yet familiar with.  When I saw the cover of this book, I tried to jog my memory with regards to the name of the author.  I finally realized that I did not know of Raoul Wallenberg (1912 -1947?) but I knew instantly that I had to read this book.  Admittedly, I am always interested in the personal correspondence of figures from the distant past to see how information was shared in the years before E-mails, SMS and social media.  The cover of the book directly describes what is contained within which is a collection of the letters between Raoul, his grandfather Gustaf Wallenberg (1863-1937) and Raoul’s mother Maj von Dardel (1891-1979) whose replies to her son are not included. The bulk of the letters are between grandfather and grandson and what is truly remarkable about them, is the amount of knowledge that is shared between the two.  Raoul embarks on a long journey and I found myself glued to the book. But aside from that, there are other things in the book that make it an enjoyable read.  

Gustaf is the undoubtedly the domineering force in the family structure.   He is Raoul’s guiding light in the absence of Gustaf’s son and Raoul’s father Raoul Oscar Wallenberg (1888-1912) who died of cancer before his son’s birth.  Raoul finds himself blessed to have a very supportive family and his grandfather both encourages and finances his studies abroad.  America is the destination of choice for young Raoul.  Gustaf himself had visited America and explains to Raoul why he feels so strongly about studying in the United States: 

“It is because of what both my father and I found in America that makes me so eager for you to get your direction in life there. No one has ever understood as well as I have, because I saw it in my youth, how decisive his time there was for my father…. I use the expression direction in life and not “education” on purpose. ” 

The first stop for Raoul is Ann Arbor, Michigan where he enrolls in college to earn an advanced degree.  But, it is only the first stop and the young Swede would take advantage of being a young bachelor to travel across the United States meeting people from all walks of life while Gustaf continues to send words of encouragement and enlightenment. I do want to comment on Gustaf’s views on women which might cause consternation in some readers.  I think today we would call him misogynistic but in that era, he would most likely have not received any reprimand.  His comments to Raoul about romance are both interesting and quite blunt.  And while he truly wanted the best for his grandson, I believe that some readers may take some offense to the words he writes.  However, Gustaf is incredibly brilliant and refined in regards to world affairs.  The knowledge contained in his letters can be of value to both men and women. Further, Gustaf’s command of words gives his letters a more potent affect and I found myself amazed at his sentence structure and grammar which is nothing short of clear and concise. 

Raoul comes across as a competent writer himself and relays to his grandfather, plenty of anecdotes from his travels abroad.  The journey goes from America, Central America, Africa and back to Europe.  Along the way, the young student learns valuable lessons about life and as I read his letters I could see his level of maturity increase with each destination.  The insight with which Raoul writes provides food for thought regarding America and other countries seen through the eyes of the traveling student.  And throughout his travels, Raoul remains firmly in awe of Gustaf, whom he looks up to with unconditional admiration.  Their relationship reminded me of the bond between my myself and my great-grandfather William, who was similar in nature to Gustaf and equally as frank in his choice of words.  Putting aside his bluntness, we all loved and respected him deeply because we knew that he loved us in return and never hesitated to show it. 

After graduating, Raoul made his way back to Europe and through a series of events, was introduced to Kàlmàn Lauer, a Hungarian Jew who was the director of the Central European Trading Company, Inc, a business that specialized in exports. This encounter changed his life permanently and as a result of it, Wallenberg accepted a post with the War Refugee Board through the invitation of Iver Olsen, a representative with the board. His new destination was Hungary which had become the target of the Germany army and a hotbed of anti-Semitism. 

The implementation of the “Final Solution” by Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) Third Reich, sent chills across Europe and removed any doubt that there existed a “safe haven” for Jews.  During his time in Budapest, Wallenberg committed himself to saving as many Jews as possible.  In the final part of the book, we are allowed to see his dispatches regarding efforts to deport Hungarian Jews and his willingness to confront both German officials and the Arrow Cross Party, led by despot Ferenc Szálasi (1897-1946).  He was relentless in his efforts and through them, it is estimated that he saved the lives of at least 100,000 Jewish people.  When a friend asked about his determination to save everyone he remarked: ““I’d never be able to go back to Stockholm without knowing that I’d done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.”  The exact number of Jews that he saved may never be known but what is certain, is that Wallenberg did prevent thousands from being deported before he was detained by the Soviet Army.   And this is what we learn in the book about his final moments in Budapest: 

“[The Soviet Army’s siege of Budapest began on December 8, 1944, the day this letter was written. Soviet authorities took RW into their ‘protective custody” and sent him to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow on January 17, 1945. He was never heard from again. The Soviets denied any knowledge of his whereabouts until 1957, when Andrei Gromyko, then foreign minister, announced that RW had died of a heart attack in 1947, in Lubyanka. There is ample but inconclusive evidence that this was not the case, and efforts to determine his fate continue.]” 

The truth regarding Wallenberg’s fate remains a mystery as explained in this article in the Israeli journal Haaretz.  The date of his death most likely remains a carefully guarded Russian secret.  Officially, it is believed that he disappeared into the Soviet gulag system in January, 1945 and was never heard from again.  His disappearance adds even more confusion to his story as he was a liberator and should have been seen as such by the invading Red Army.  The reasons for his detainment and subsequent imprisonment are not exactly clear.  And this adds a tragic ending to a remarkable story that should be part of any discussion about World War II and the Holocaust. 

“Across the United States and throughout the world there are Raoul Wallenberg committees and individuals who work tirelessly to educate the public about this compassionate and nonviolent hero, and to assist in solving the mystery of his fate. By introducing the man behind the cause, Letters and Dispatches will help us all remember.” – Rachel Oestreicher Haspel, President of the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States



My Family’s Survival: The true story of how the Shwartz family escaped the Nazis and survived the Holocaust – Aviva Gat


The rise of anti-Semitism that is occurring across parts of Europe and here in the United States is both troubling and disheartening.  Throughout history, the Jewish people have been persecuted on the basis of their faith and during World War II, they were subjected to systematic extermination fueled by racist ideology and pseudo-science.  Adolf Hitler’s quest for power and dominance brought death and destruction across Europe and nearly brought Germany to its knees before Allied forces.   To this day, World War II is seen by many as the worst conflict mankind has ever fought.  As the German Army rolled across Europe taking control of cities, towns and razing small villages, Jews were forced to flee for their lives or risk being sent to ghettos and concentration camps through the Third Reich’s “Final Solution”.  Among the Jews that did flee was the Shwartz family which resided in Butla, Poland. This book is their story of their survival as they fled their home and traveled across Europe to escape the looming Nazi threat to everything deemed to be “Juden”.  

Aviva Gat is a descendant of the Shwartz family and through a series of interviews regarding the family history, she was able to compose this inspiration story of survival during a very dark time in world history.  By her own admission some of the story is fictionalize and I am inclined to believe that this in fact refers to some of the dialogue that may have taken place between the central characters. Regardless she does affirm that the experiences described in the book did in fact take place as the family moved from Poland, to Hungary and Romania where the book ends.  And while the story does provide the typical “happy ending”,  it does not end on a tragic note. 

The story begins in the small village of Butla which remains largely shielded from the events taking place inside of Germany.  They are aware of Hitler but have yet to see first hand the effects of the war.  But when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, their lives changed forever and Poland was never the same again. The first visitors to Butla are Russian soldiers who make make themselves at home. But they are gone as fast as they came leaving the people of Butla wondering what will come next.  They did not have to wait long as Ukranian soldiers arrive and commit an act of violence that brings home the reality of what is taking place.  It becomes clear to the Shwartz family that their time in Butla is limited.  The family is led by the patriarch who dies early in the story.  Their mother is already deceased and is mentioned only briefly.  The responsibility to care for the family falls on David, who leaves the town with wife Hinda, children Abi and Sarah, and younger sister Rachel.   The other brothers Shlomo, Meir, Itzik, Zelig and Chaim had previously left the town.  This small group embarked on a journey that is simply unbelievable and highlights just how dangerous it was to be Jewish in Eastern Europe during World War II.  

As the book progresses, we are introduced to numerous characters who play crucial roles in the story.  What I found to be very interesting is the sense of unity that exists among the Jewish characters in the story and it also shows that without this hidden network, many of them would have perished. And while the journey was not easy,  there are moments in the book where the kindness of others shines brilliantly.  But sadly, as refugees from Poland, they were subject to discrimination both in Hungary and Romania. And some of the discrimination was at the hands of other Jews.  Those parts of the book were hard to read and the scene in which Abi finds a Synagogue might resonate with and infuriate readers who are Jewish. I personally stared in disbelief at what transpires between him and the Rabbis.   

Because the book is centered around the family and their journey across three countries there is very little mention of what is taking place in the actual war. The main characters in the story do relay some things they learned as they were fleeing for their lives. Hitler’s name does come up but only a few occasions and none of the other notorious figures in the Reich make an appearance. This book is strictly the Shwartz story.  However, towards the end of the book the war does become a bigger part of the story, in particular when Allied bombing raids come too close for comfort. The scene in which David is in the hospital shows how a moment’s notice and sheer luck sometimes meant the difference between life and death. The story is full of close calls, some of which will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.  Many guardian angels appear in the story at just the right moment, preventing certain death and a far more tragic outcome.  Some characters in the story are cruel and take advantage of the Jews’ plight.  However, the are far and few in between and unable to overcome the vast network of support that the Shwartzs and others have available to them.  It is a classic example of how unity overcomes adversity.  

The final act in the act occurs through the actions of Abi who grows up quickly during the war.  His decision to reach Palestina as they know it, changes the lives of all for good.  That part of the book is a story all in itself and the journey is one that many Jews were forced to take as they escaped the growing Nazi menace.  Back in Eastern Europe, David makes the decision that he and Hinda will also go to Palestina while Rachel’s like takes a slightly different path albeit with the same destination.  Victor emerges as a critical part of the story’s finale and helps to bring their struggle full circle. However in the epilogue, we learn some dark facts about the fates of the other members in the Shwartz family.  I will not go into it here but will say that we all know what happened to many Jews who did not flee Europe.  Their fates and that of the other Shwartz brothers provide the dark cloud that hangs over the story because of the subject matter. Further, the extermination of the Jews is a topic for another discussion at another time. But if you are in search of a good book about the costs that were paid to endure the nightmare that was World War II, this book is a good addition to anyone’s library.



Voices From Iraq: A People’s History 2003-2009 – Mark Kukis


When the United States Armed Forces invaded the country of Iraq in March, 2003, I had a very uneasy feeling in my stomach with regards to the future of that Islamic Republic. Occupation by a foreign army is never a process that goes smoothly and even the best military commanders are unable to predict the final outcome.  Yes, Saddam Hussein (1937-2006) was removed from power, subsequently captured and forced to stand trial wherein he was convicted and sentenced to death.  And although he is gone from power in Iraq, his ghost continues to haunt the country and there are many Iraqis who continue to live with mental, emotional and physical scars from the days of his regime and memories of the invasion by American forces.  As a person who lives in the Western Hemisphere, there is much about the Middle East that I have still have yet to learn.  When I saw this book as a recommendation on Amazon, I immediately jumped at the chance to read it.  Mark Kukis covered the conflict from 2006 to 2009 as a correspondent for Time Magazine and saw firsthand the devastation from the invasion.  Appropriately titled Voices From Iraq, it provides readers with the opportunity to read the words spoken by Iraqis who survived one of history’s deadliest regimes and a military invasion by the United States of America.

Readers should be aware that the book is not for the faint at heart. Also, it is not a discussion focused on Hussein himself.  Some of the speakers do mention his name as they remember his reign of terror, but the focus remains on the aftermath of his removal from power.  Be prepared for a graphic descriptions of violence and tragic stories that involve murder, kidnapping and bombings that left paths of devastation in their wakes.  The men and women who sat for the interviews presented in the book are everyday people who had their entire lives turned upside down in a conflict that none of them asked for or desired.  Kukis provides a brief description of their lives and turns the floor over to them so they can tell us exactly what they remember from those dark times in their nation’s history.  And what will happen is that your emotions will embark on a roller coaster ride as you learn the truth about the “liberation” of Iraq.

I believe that it may be of some benefit to readers to learn the back-story of the conflict between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, which forms the basis for a lot of the sectarian violence that becomes commonplace without a centralized Iraqi government. In the wake of Hussein’s departure, the Shi’ites soon found themselves the targets of Sunnis who had formerly been party of the Baath party in the Hussein’s Administration.  The vengeance with which they go after the Shi’ites is both alarming and heartbreaking, and through the words of the speakers in the book we can see how many individuals were targeted by Sunni militias determined to eliminate those they determined to be enemies of true Islam under the Sunni ideology.

The rise in sectarian violence and sudden disappearances that occur throughout the book sent chills down my spine.  Nearly all of the victims are men, many of them husbands with large families at home.  Further, there is often no explanation given for their abductions and their families typically learn of their fates through third parties or unfortunately, a trip to the morgue. In some instances we do learn as to what exactly did happen but even then there are parts of the story that even the surviving family members have never figured out.   Some of the speakers became translators for American forces and had joined with them in order to eradicate the menace of al-Qaeda.  In a country where smaller cities are occupied by people of the same sects of Islam, keeping one’s identity secret was not always easy. The level of danger involved in this line of work is captured in their stories highlighting just how close some of them came to having in their lives taken from them because of their efforts to assist the Americans. But make no mistake, those who did help the Americans firmly believed in removing Al-Qaeda from Iraq’s soil. However, the American way and Iraqi way are fundamentally different as explained in this quote by Sheik Hamid al-Hais:

“If the Americans found people from al-Qaeda, they arrested them. We killed them. That’s the difference. That’s why we were able to start defeating al-Qaeda in a matter of months where the Americans had struggled to beat them for years. These people, al-Qaeda, are not human. ” – Sheik Hamid al-Hais

It should be noted that not all of the Iraqis interviewed were thrilled to see the Americans arrived and some picked up arms in defense of the country from those they saw as occupiers.  I think it is important for American readers to understand that there are many things we did not see on television here at home.  As I read through the stories, I began to form a more accurate picture in my mind of the daily reality of life in Iraq after Saddam Hussein.  The fallen dictator’s legacy is largely negative but some supporters did remain and in spite of the terror he inflicted upon Iraqis, he was seen by some as the lesser of two evils.  Azhar Abdul-Karim Abudl-Wahab is a former instructor who firmly believed in the American mission, yet his students offered varying views of the invasion.  He emphasizes that:

“Of course you cannot discuss Iraqi history without mentioning Saddam, whom I viewed as a kind of occupier. I tried to put it in those terms to my students. Saddam stole freedoms from Iraq. He stole money from Iraq. He brought wars on Iraq. All the bad things an occupier might do Saddam actually did. I told them this. For the most part their reply to me was the same. At least he was an Iraqi, they would say. At least he was an Iraqi ” – Azhar Abdul-Karim Abudl-Wahab

Other were more forceful in their views of the Americans whom they viewed with suspicion and in some cases anger.  Regardless of Hussein’s tyrannical reign, the country did have a central power structure. But with the tyrant gone, a free for all commenced during the development of a power vacuum.  And for the people of Iraq, the violence escalated to levels that none of them wanted or could have ever conceived.  Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha is quite blunt in his assessment of the American effort:

“Yes, they are to blame. The first thing the Americans did when they entered Iraq was to disband the Army. They opened up the borders and allowed people to come in. They did not work with us, the people, in the beginning. Al-Qaeda was able to come in and gain influence with the people instead. I don’t think there is any American who can deny that, because that’s the truth.” – Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha

If you have decided to pick up this book then I believe I do not have to tell you that there are no “happy endings”.  Every story is a tragedy on its own and will require sensitive readers to take a break while reading. I personally had to take moment to gather my thoughts while reading some of the stories.  The recollections presented show a lifestyle that is more than any person should bear.  Death lurks around the corner for everyone and even the suspicion of helping the Americans or not practicing what extremist call “true Islam” was an instant death sentence. Quite frankly, this book fully shows why war truly is hell. As an American, I was forced to ask myself: did we truly succeed in Iraq? And if so, at what cost was it to the Iraqi people?

The 2003 Iraq War has largely faded into distant memory for the average American.  Yet, it was less than twenty years ago that an entire country was destabilize in the name of democracy.  A brutal tyrant was removed from power but in the process, the people he left behind were forced to endure hell on earth.  These are the voices from Iraq that tell the truth about a war that continues to haunt two countries.  Highly recommended.


The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded – Ronald Kessler

Kessler-sinsoffatherWhen we think of political dynasties in America, perhaps no other name has had as big of an impact as the Kennedys.  They are both admired and loathed but their importance to  the American experience cannot be understated. The patriarch, Joseph (“Joe”) P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) was once one of the wealthiest men in America.  Yet for all of his financial success, controversy followed him and his family for years after his death.  The family’s success undoubtedly reached its highest peak with second son John F. (“Jack”) Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected in 1960 as the next President of the United States.  For Joe, it was a dream come true and reaffirmed his mantra that “Kennedys don’t lose”.  To most of the public, the Kennedys seemed like figures out of a story book and the media’s creation of the term “Camelot” that was given to the Kennedy White House, further enhanced the family’s mythical status.  The image presented to the public gave the impression of a fairytale marriage that any single person would envy.  Today, we know through the benefit of hindsight that the truth is far less glamarous and behind the scenes, there were dark storm clouds gathering as infidelity, old man Joe’s influence and one foreign crisis after another made life as the first family strenuous to say the least.  Rumors have persisted over the years that Joe Kennedy provided the money for all of his sons’ political campaigns and that the money he provided was used in several places to swing the election to his son Jack.  And while there has never been documented evidence of such, statements have been made by many individuals that action were taken to give Kennedy the election.  All knowledge of what really did happen went with Joe Kennedy to the grave and I doubt that even his sons knew the whole story.  He was a master at compartmentalization and for years, remained chameleon like figure.  Ronald Kessler decided to take another at Kennedy’s life and what he found has been compiled into this book that peels back the layers that have shrouded the Kennedy family is mystique for several decades.

I should point out that the book is not about the Kennedy presidency nor is it focused on Jack’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. In fact, the murder receives only a small section in the story.  Joe Kennedy is the center of the story and the author takes us deep inside his world in a time before Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) started a second world war. the stock market was less regulated, Hollywood was for the taking and the 1919 National Prohibition Act (Volstead Act) turned bootleggers into millionaires.  Joe’s numerous ventures both legal and illegal are discussed in the book and show that he was not above defying the law in order to reap hugh profits.  After providing background information on the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families, Kessler shifts gears and the story picks up pace as Joe begins to implement his vision for financial success and political fame.  Kennedy had always portrayed himself as the Irishman who overcame bias and adversity to rise high in American society.  It is a moving story but there were many things he left out and Kessler leaves no stone unturned.  The real Joe Kennedy is revealed here and what we learn may prove to be more than some readers have bargained for.  If you hold the Kennedy family in high regard, then this book might cause you to re-evaluate your views of them while inducing feelings of bewilderment, sympathy and in some cases, pity.

There is no question that Kennedy was shrewd and domineering businessman, never afraid to throw his weight around.  And those abilities would bring him into the circle of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) whose relationship with Joe takes up a significant portion of the book.  Historians know very well the story of the “appeasement at Munich” where Czechoslovakia was carved up on a silver platter for Adolft Hitler by former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) with the full support of U.S. Ambassador Kennedy.  But when Hitler decided to invade neighboring Poland on September 1, 1939, it became hauntingly clear that the appeasement was a distraction from Germany’s master plan.  Kennedy’s view that England would lose the war by 1940 caused consternation and outrage in Britain and Washington.  And it would put a deep strain to develop in the relationship between Kennedy and Roosevelt. Drawing upon written correspondence and statements by those with knowledge, the book reveals the high level of contempt in which Kennedy was held by many in government. Roosevelt himself does not spare Kennedy his wrath and it is an interesting look behind the scenes as the German army rolled across Europe.  Some readers might be puzzled by Kennedy’s behavior.  One possible explanation can be found in Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts’ The Day the Bubble Burst: A Social History of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which discusses the link between Nazi Germany and American bankers and investors.   I personally wondered why Roosevelt tolerated Kennedy as long as he did.  There is a good explanation for that as well which is provided within the story, further highlighting the fact that politics is a ruthless business.   As the war rages on, Kennedy eventually moves back to the United States and like a piece of chessboard, he is moved from one position to another but never attains a position within the White House. He would live vicariously through Jack who’s victory over Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the moment Joe had been waiting for.

I have often heard of the Kennedy curse and tragedy did follow the family constantly.  The deaths of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s (1890-1995) children affect both deeply and the mantra of “Kennedys don’t cry” comes off more as a slogan than a way of life.  In spite of Joe’s antics throughout the book, there did exist a very personal side to him that was often unseen and rarely revealed.  The memories provided by his former mistress Janet DesRosiers shows him in his most humble state and also provokes more questions about the marriage between Joe and Rose which comes off as more than unorthodox.  What we learn about their union sheds light on the difference between liberal and puritanical views.  Stories of the Kennedy men and their love lives is nothing new and in the case of Joe, he certainly had his fun.  But while reading the book, I asked myself if he would have behaved in the same manner had his marriage to Rose taken a different course? We can only speculate but what is clear is that “love” is not always what we think it is and many secrets always exist behind closed doors. On occasion in the book, statements by their children regarding their childhood provide a very sobering picture of life at home and there are very few positive comments about their mother Rose, who is more like a visiting relative than full-time mother.  They do however, show the utmost respect and admiration dad Joe who emerges as the glue that holds the family together.

Far from being “Camelot”, the family was more like an episode of reality television gone wrong. However, there is no question that the Kennedy possessed enormous ambition and it propelled them to high places.  For them, losing was not an option.  And John F. Kennedy remains one of America’s most beloved presidents.  Aside from Joe, the author does discuss incidents that arise in the lives of the children, most of which are highly serious.  Ted (1932-2009) as the family called him, has a series of incidents that severely injured or took the life of someone in his company.  Yet his accidents are only a few in a long series of events in the Kennedy family that involved tragedy due to recklessness or substance abuse. And no story about the family is complete without a discussion regarding the missing sister, Rosemary (1918-2005) who outlived all but one of her brothers.  Her story is perhaps one of the most tear-jerking parts of the story and I warn readers who are sensitive or may know someone labeled as having a mental disability that this part of the book might be difficult.  But, the discussion presented by Kessler points out some things about Rosemary’s intellect that show just how primitive the mental health field in the 1940s. Today, I believe that had she been born in another era, she would have lived a far different and close to normal life. But sadly, she was born in a time where most doctors did not understand what her condition actually was and resorted to drastic measures that changed her life permanently and served as a major source of regret throughout Rose’s life.

To say that the story by Kessler is unbelievable would be an understatement. This is a raw and unfiltered look at the life of Joe Kennedy and his family whose name is a crucial part in the our nation’s past. Some readers may be surprised at what Kessler reveals and others may feel indifference.  As time moves forward, the  Kennedys will be remembered at best, a dynasty from another era that continues to fade into the distance.  Admittedly, I was aware of a good number of the facts revealed by the author and had no illusions about how fierce and ruthelss Joe Kennedy could be.  I believe it is for that reason that I was never shocked while reading the story.  However, I did learn more about the the level of dysfunction that existed within the home and how unusual family ties were.  For further reading, I do recommend that readers consider Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot  , in which the author explores many alleged family secrets. The book is controversial but overall very well written and I do believe Hersh was right about some things but not about everything. However, it is still a good read and completely breaks down the myth of “Camelot”. I have no doubt that there are many family secrets that remain carefully guarded.  In the end, no family or individual is perfect and this story is proof of that.  Further, we can have all the material items we want in life and still suffer from loneliness.  Joe comes to understand this quite well and his unguarded moments show that even those of us with a strong facade are at times highly vulnerable on the inside.  Regardless of your opinion of him, Joe Kennedy remains firmly entrenched in American history as the founder of a dynasty that once captivated an entire world.  And if you decide to read this book, be aware that there is far more to the man you may have ever imagined.


Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House – Elizabeth Keckley

keckleyThe assassination of President Abraham Lincoln remains one of the most important historical events in American history.  Honest Abe, as he was known, had been elected as the first Republican president to serve in the highest office in the land.   The Grand Old Party (GOP) had been founded in 1854 and Lincoln was the icon for what the party stood for.  In the wake of his death, John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) was shot and killed by law enforcement officers and several of his co-conspirators went the gallows including the first woman to be executed by the United States Government, Mary Surratt (1823-1865). Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) grieved deeply for her husband but what I was not aware of, was her close friendship with a former slave and dress owner by the name of Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907).  When I saw the title of the book, I had to do a double-take and quickly realized that I needed to read this book.  And I can after having finished it, that it is an incredible story from a first-hand witness to the personal lives of Abraham Lincoln, his family and important figures in Washington who do not escape Mary’s skeptical eye.

Keckley was born a slave and she recalls her early life which is quite tragic.  Readers who are sensitive to material about slavery in the United States and acts of violence might find the early part of the book slightly difficult to read through but I promise you that it does get better in some ways.  Keckley’s story picks up pace after she earns her freedom due largely in part to the generosity of Mrs. Anne Garland who helps her raise the twelve hundred dollars required by her owner.  After satisfying the price and repaying her debt, she is free to move on in life but I am sure that she could never have imagined that she would not only serve the Lincoln family but also the family of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis (1808-1889).  I was not prepared for this part of the story and I believe it is one of the most curious moments as well.  The section on Jefferson Davis is brief, mainly because she did not spend much time with them as it occurred before the war broke out and the Davis family moved south.  And Mrs. Davis makes some comments that are quite interesting about the impending conflict.  History proved her wrong but her comments are revealing.  Keckley had gained fame as a dress maker whose skills were in high demand and it is because of this that she came into the life of the Lincolns.

Mary Lincoln takes on Keckley as sort of a personal assistant who assumes many roles, even confidant.  Keckley is full of endless memories of many private aspects of the first family’s life.  The death of Willie Lincoln (1850-1862) hits hard and we are allowed to bear witness to their enormous grief.  It is a very intimate portrait of the Lincolns that the public did not see. And when Lincoln himself is assassinated, it is Keckley who comes to Mary’s aid in her time of grief.  But, that is only half the story as the two develop a deeper friendship.  Each moves around the country, often with Keckley meeting Lincoln in yet another city.  But in the end, they were separated by distance and reliant upon written correspondence. Regardless, it is a touching story of friendship in a time where relations between blacks and whites was largely that of upper and persecuted lower class.

I did find Mary’s comments about members of Lincoln’s cabinet to be interesting and in some cases, she was vindicated.  Keckley absorbs all and makes her own comments on occasion about those figures.  The Vice-President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) is shrouded in infamy through Keckley’s revelations about his non-actions as Lincoln lays dying.  His actions are direct proof in regards to the negative view held by Keckley and others of the man who succeeded Lincoln.  The author does not encounter him herself but does meet members of his family who stand in stark contrast to him.  Johnson’s actions during the Reconstruction Era nearly resulted in his impeachment. The vote of a single senator saved him from eternal embarrassment. Some might say that he did that before impeachment but I leave that to readers to decide.

As Mary and family move on from Washington, Keckley goes out west with them as Robert and Todd continue to grow without their late father. We see some of the lighthearted moments between mother and sons but Abe’s ghost is never far away.   And Mary has a secret about finances that Keckley reveals which may cause readers to stare in disbelief.  That secret also sets the stage for the remainder of the book, in particular the duo’s trip to New York City.   Mary is determined to regain financial stability due to the loss of her husband and status as first lady.  Keckley becomes her crutch and does her best to help Mary in her financial endeavors.  And to show Mary’s increasing concern for money, Keckley includes transcripts of the letters that she received from Mary.  In them, we can see the change in her mental state and concern for her pending transactions as time continues to move forward.  We do not see Keckley’s replies (photocopying as we know it did not exist so it is understandable) but it is clear from Mary’s letters that she does receive replies from Keckley.  The book ends without a final word on Mary, who is dependent on her dear Lizzie, as Keckley is known to those who are fond of her.  In later years, Mary was institutionalized and lived her final years moving around both domestically and internationally.  She died at the age of sixty-three on July 16, 1882 after suffering a stroke the previous day.  Keckley died in May, 1907 and rest at National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland.

The book is short but it is a great story by a woman who lived in a horrible system of human explanation and through luck, fortune and destiny, rose above it and found a home in the White House with a president whose actions changed the course of American history.  There are some sad moments in Keckley’s own life although she does not go into deep detail about them. She keeps the focus on those she encounters, undoubtedly to show the incredible journey she found herself on.  If you have the time, I think you will find this to be a great selection and I do feel that it should be part of any library which contains literature on the life and death of Abraham Lincoln.  This is a good account from an incredible woman.

ASIN : B01CD4O772

The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom – James Green

green-devilThe United States is considered by many historians to be “young nation” due to it being in existence since 1776.  While it is true that my nation’s history is not as extensive as Ancient Greece or Egypt, in the time since its creation, America has been the source of some of the most groundbreaking events in world history.  Incredibly, there are dozens of smaller events that have taken place which many Americans have forgotten about or are not aware of.  When President Donald Trump ran for office in 2016, he made it clear he wanted to bring jobs back to the Appalachian region known simply as “coal country”.  It was profound promise to make and some might go as far as to say it was deception on the part of the candidate.  Four years later the situation in Appalachia has not changed much and coal is widely considered to be an older energy source to be exported rather than used domestically. Natural gas and nuclear power have substituted coal as America continues to employ cleaner sources of energy.   West Virginia is seen as the heart of Appalachia and has made headlines in recent years due to the surge in opioid addiction.  I watched the 2013 documentary Oxyana and it provides a glimpse into the lives of some West Virginians but surely, it does serve as the example for the entire state. But what we do see in the film continues to exist and is cause for concern.  One question I have always had is what exactly happened during the time in which coal was so widely desired?  I had read Henry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area and therein the author provides a thorough explanation of the coal story in Cumberland County, Kentucky.  James Green shifts the focus here to West Virginia and tells the story of its coal miners who waged a battle that helped changed labor practice in America. 

Before starting this book, I believe that it is imperative for you to clear your mind of any pre-conceived notions about West Virginia.  As I began to read, I reminded myself that there was much about West Virginian history I did not know and this book is solid proof of that belief.  Green takes us back in time to the middle to late 1800s as mining companies begin to realize the enormous potential for profits in West Virginia.  Dozens of corporations soon set up shop and began hiring miners to engage in backbreaking and deadly work. Sadly, the workers are essentially viewed as “tenants” of the coal company which is recognized as a “landlord” by the law.  Further, it is clearly explained in the book how miners had very little rights and were financially dependent on the coal company in every part of their lives making the system nothing more than a hotbed of slave labor.  The work was long and dangerous with explosions and the caving in of mines a very real threat. In the early 1900s, miners began to wake up and their voices would be amplified by critical events and iconic figures who remain legends in miner lore.  The formation of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was the first step in miners taking back control from the coal companies and obtaining protections in what was becoming an increasing deadly profession.  Unionization was new to coal country and the coal companies did not give in without a fight. What took place in the wake of its formation, provides us with an incredible story told beautifully here by the author.  However, the formation of the UMWA is only one part of the story and there were many faces and events taking place around it that are important pieces to the larger picture. 

Every movement needs leaders and there is no shortage of them here.  The guiding figures we learn of in the story are Mary Jones (1837-1930) known publicly as “Mother Jones”. She emerges as a powerful voice for the miners and is joined in the struggle by Frank Keeney (1882-1970) and Fred Mooney (1888-1952), whose efforts to protect the miners are critical to the story being told.  Admittedly, I did not know the names of these figures nor of the battles between coal companies and miners in both Paint Creek and Cabin Creek.  The violence became so bad that Governor William E. Glasscock (1862-1925) declared martial law on more than one occasion.  West Virginia was hot and the battle was just heating up.  More figures soon enter the story including both former Governor Harry Hatfield (1875-1962) and Matewan, West Virginia Police Chief William Sidney “Sid” Hatfield (1893-1921), whose actions against the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency earned him the admiration of thousands of miners.  Interestingly, both are related to the Hatfield family and the author does discuss the Hatfield-McCoy “feud” that has become a pop reference in American culture. Readers who want to know what really happened during the alleged feud should read Thomas Dotson’s The Hatfield and McCoy Feud after Kevin Costner: Rescuing History, which clears up many long-standing rumors and non-factual statements that have persisted for years.  

I found myself surprised to learn of the large number of immigrants that lived and worked in the West Virginian mines.  In contrast to a prevailing image of a largely white Anglo-Saxon demographic, immigrants from Europe and Black Americans settled in the area where the men found work in the mines. McDowell county stands out in the story for its black citizens and importance to the growth of the UMWA.  And just as Mother Jones realized, they were the key to achieving both unionization and true change for the miners in West Virginia. In fact, the Italian immigrants played a much larger role than many people may realize.  And some might be surprised at the large number of Italian settlers but what is often left out of the Italian immigrant story is their arrival in the south, in particulars New Orleans, Louisiana.  From the south, many Italians also moved across the United States and settled in areas that provided the new lives they sought in America.  It could be said that Green’s book is not just a story on West Virginia’s mines, but also the immigrant experience in America which continues to play itself out as politicians use the matter for political gain. 

While reading the book, I quickly realized that was took place in West Virginia was really a small-scale civil war.  It may sound like an exaggeration but I am convinced that readers will see just how deadly and fierce the fighting became as coal companies began to use outside enforcers to evict miners off company property.  Albert Felts and Don Chafin (1887-1944) emerge as the story’s villains.  The battles were deadly and the miners essentially form their own army to take on the corporations. It was nothing short of a war which has received scant attention in discussions focused on American history.   Green is fully conscious of this and early on he points out that: 

The West Virginia coal miners’ story has never been recounted in full from its origins in 1892, when the first UMWA organizers appeared in the coal camps, to those thrilling days in the first spring of the New Deal, when union forces emerged victorious after forty years of struggle.4 The Devil Is Here in These Hills is a history of that enduring struggle and of the diverse community of working people who carried it on for so long.

Washington was aware of the events taking place in West Virginia but had repeatedly resisted calls from state officials to send in federal troops, believe that the matter could be resolved through negotiation. The stalemate continue through the early 1900s until a key piece of legislation was passed that changed America. The New Deal programs enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) between 1933 and 1939 were critical in repairing the American economy in the wake of the Great Depression.  A key component of the program ushered in a new course for American labor.  Its significance will not be lost on readers.  However, there are sad moments in the book and what happens in the aftermath of the New Deal may in fact be the saddest part of the story despite the law’s impact.  I say this because the removal of the need for a united front changed not only the demographics in West Virginia but also gave rise to darker aspects of America’s troubled past.  The author explains each in detail and I am sure readers will be shaking their heads by this point in the book.  

Jones, Keeney and Mooney are long gone but their actions and commitment to miners’ cause will never be forgotten.  The story of West Virginia’s mines and its workers is an example of the bloody and protracted struggle for workers’ rights that continues to this day.  Further, it is a part of American history that every citizen should know.  If you are curious about coal country and its long history, this book is a must read. 


The Day the Bubble Burst: A Social History of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts

Morgan-burstIn the autumn of 1929, between the months of September and October, the world was plunged into financial uncertainty as stock markets in New York City and other places saw a massive devaluation of stocks and bonds.  Some investors lost millions in the crash and others less financially secure, saw nearly their entire market portfolio crumble before their eyes.  In the wake of the crash, America plunged into the great depression that spread misery and despair across the nation for several more years.  The crash remains to this day, one of the greatest financial disasters in history.  However, its causes are still up for debate and there is no single reason for the catastrophe but numerous factors did combine to bring the economy to a grinding halt.  Authors Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts have studied the crash and tell the story here about the “day the bubble burst”.

Prior to reading the book, I was familiar with some of the names that are critical in the story. For example, I knew of William C. Durant (1861-1947), the founder of General Motors and the legendary Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969), former owner of RKO Studios and Ambassador to Great Britain. Incredibly, Kennedy comes out of the crash with minimal loss and would go to establish his own dynasty that catapulted his son John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) to the White House in the 1960 election.  But there are many others crucial to the story and their lives and actions are intertwined in the fabric of American society both past and present.

I forewarn readers that the story moves from one person to the next and then back again.  And although the book does follow a chronological order, it is actually several stories woven into one. Next to Durant, the life of Charles Stewart Mott (1875-1973) comes into focus as the authors examine his role at General Motors and actions at the Union Industrial Bank which plays a very important role in the story.   The authors also take a look as A.P. Giannini (1870-1949) the founder of Transamerica known today as Bank of America. Continuing on, Jesse Livermore (1877-1940) enters the picture as the poster-boy for the successful stock trader.  Charles E. Mitchell (1877-1955) joins the cast of characters as chairman of National City Bank, known simply today as Citi Bank.  His financial policies are believed by many to be one of the direct causes for the crash of the market. John Pierpont “Jack” Morgan Jr., (Jack Morgan) is a strong presence as well and readers will take note of a key situation involving Morgan and Joseph Kennedy that seemed to grind the latter’s gears and set him on due course to become a financial titan of his own. And finally for the New Yorkers, John J. Raskob (1879-1950) will be of high interest for his enduring contribution to the New York skyline: the Empire State Building.

One of the book’s major strengths is the explanation of the stock market provided by the authors, which is helpful to readers seeking to get an understanding of how the traders were manipulating and playing the market. Of course, the book is not intended to be a stock market guide but simple enough for the everday reader to understand in relation to the story being told.  Today, the market is just a competitive but back then, less regulation existed and traders were far more willing to engage in dubious and illegal activity as can be seen in the story.  The thirst for wealth was so contagious that traders in other countries would also play a role in the crash such as British investor Clarence Hatry (1888-1965), who some blame for ingiting the spark that caused the panic resulting in the plummeting of stock values across world markets.  The authors do not convict him in the book but leave it up to readers to decide. However, they do say this to make their point clear:

“To say that Hatry caused the Wall Street Crash would be to put it far too strongly. But to say that his downfall played no part in it whatsoever would possibly be equally misleading.” 

Undoubtedly, the crash had many causes and the number of people who deserve blame is quite significant. Greed and disregard for financial risk, allowed unrestrained investing into a market, held together by carefully adjusted interest rates and the exchange of foreign currency and other commercial goods. And a ripple in that temperamental network of world markets resulted in a crash no one thought possible yet everyone feared. From housewives to savvy Wall Street players, the impact was brutal and drove some to the brink of suicide. And today that risk is present as the market fluctuates constantly. However, in the wake of the crash, the Federal Government stepped in and imposed tougher regulations to prevent a replay of 1929.  And if there is any doubt as to the severity of the crash, this quote sets the record straight in the most sobering of ways:

“In the five hours the market had gone mad on October 29, it was later estimated that almost as much money in capital value vanished into thin air as the United States had spent on World War I. The loss was around ten times the budget of the Union in the entire Civil War.” 

Towards the end of the book the discussion shifts slightly away from New York and on to Berlin where a young Austrian named Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) is making a name for himself and using Germany’s dire situation and the crash to consolidate his power and grip of the Fatherland.  The connection between the market’s crash and Hitler’s rise to power will be of high interest to history buffs and aficionados of World War II.   And what the authors reveal about the relationship between Wall Street and Germany might leave some shaking their heads in disbelief.  There is far more to the story than I could possibly discuss here but what is disclosed explains why some elements of American society were hesitant to get involved in World War II.  The saying “follow the money” certainly does apply.

In the afterword to the book, the fates of those involved with the crash are detailed by the authors, and here we see how they ended up after devastating financial fallout.  The end result is often sad and in some cases involved criminal prosecution.  The government left no stone unturned and hardly any of the major places was ever the same again.  A few did rebound and fair quite well in later years but they are forever linked to that fateful autumn of 1929.  Some may wonder if another market crash could happen.I believe so but under extraordinary circumstances.  Regulations are far more stringent today and watchdog organizations keep a carefully trained eye on the market.  However, it is also true that if we do not know our history, we are condemned to repeat it.  The 1929 crash was nothing short of earth shattering and the repercussions were felt for decades.  This is the story of how and why it happened.  Highly recommended.