Book Review: Once in a Great City by David Maraniss

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss

This is a love story to a once-great city, told by a native son. Maraniss here chooses to focus his attention to 1962-1963, banner years for auto capital Detroit. Ford was on top of its game and looking to revolutionize the American sports car with the Mustang; Motown was hot and setting off a string of number one hits by artists who would become legends; the struggles of the civil rights movement were bolstered by a forward-looking local government and strong black community. Everything seemed poised to keep Detroit on top for decades to come.

Of course, today we know the realities of its current incarnation. But Maraniss here delivers us a loving, lingering look at a city that was a beacon for many across the country. Maraniss’ tales weaves in and out of politics, industry, music, religion, civil rights, law and order, and crime, we see how the biggest and smallest players of Detroit lived their intermingled lives, how small connections and deep alliances helped to shape the city of Detroit. This book is all the more fascinating considering the depth of the city’s fall from grace. Seeing such a vivid portrait of the city in its heyday makes it all the more obvious what has been lost.

This book is great for both history buffs and for those interested in current events. There is quite a bit in this book which echoes modern day issues and struggles. This book makes you want to root for Detroit, to hope that it’s future could hold even a fraction of the vivacity of its past.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Cadaver King by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

In the early 1990s, two young girls were taken from their Mississippi homes, raped, and murdered. Two men, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, were separately arrested, tried, and convicted for the crimes (Levon Brooks for the rape and murder of Courtney Smith in 1990, and Brewer for the rape and murder of Christine Jackson in 1992). Their convictions were won largely on the back of forensic testimony from coroner Dr. Stephen Hayne and self-styled bitemark expert Dr. Michael West. The problem? Both men were using extremely flawed (and some would say fraudulent) methods in their analyses. Michael West’s reputation as a huckster is so bad that he was featured in John Oliver’s exposé on the flaws of forensic testimony. Rather than striving for truth and justice, both doctors gained a reputation for helping to put away the person the police decided was guilty, no matter the flimsiness of the case.

Both men were eventually exonerated, but not before they had spent a combined 30 years in prison. Cadaver King (the authors are associated with The Innocence Project, which was instrumental in freeing Brooks and Brewer) examines the highly flawed coroner system in Mississippi, the faith placed by judges and juries on forensic methods which have not been scientifically evaluated, and a justice system which is reluctant to address and rectify its mistakes, even at the cost of keeping innocent men imprisoned.

This book examines the historical and racial roots that formed the justice system in Mississippi into what it would become. The book runs through the Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras–when the coroner system was used to enable and hide racial violence–to the turn of the twenty-first century, when lack of training, funding, and oversight allowed old habits to merge with modern science.

This book is horrifying and thought provoking. Faith in our justice system is one of tenets of our society. We should strive for the ideal that ojustice in this cointry rises above petty prejudices, that it demands accountability and accuracy from expert witnesses. That any person walking into a courtroom will leave with the verdict they deserve. While I’m certainly not naive enough to think that our system is infallible, seeing just how far we are from that heady ideal is devastating. This book serves as a reminder that the system is a creature of habit, and change will come more quickly if we begin to sit up and take notice.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Portable Frederick Douglass

The Portable Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass, Henry Louis Gates (Editor), John Stauffer (Editor)

It being Black History Month (and considering the state of current events), I think I picked the perfect time to read this book. This Penguin Classic Edition is a collection of Douglass’ best and most famous writings.

The book is divided into four parts: Autobiographical (which includes his seminal work: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave), fictional (his lone foray into fiction is The Heroic Slave, about Madison Washington and the Creole Slave Revolt), Speeches, and Journalism.The material covers from 1845 (Narrative, his first piece), through the 1890s (Shortly before his death in 1895).

Douglass’ writing is straightforward and erudite. His portrayals of slave life are vivid and arresting. His arguments are forcefully made and thoroughly worked out. This man is a born orator, and a succinct and powerful writer. I feel a bit guilty for not having read much of his work before now. It is also unnerving how relevant many of his topics are in the present day.

The Fugitive Slave act of 1850 meant that slaves who managed to escape from the South could still be hunted down, even if they managed to flee to a state where slavery was outlawed. The bar for sending someone back was depressingly low; two white witnesses simply had to attest that the person in question was, indeed, a runaway slave; no hard evidence necessary. Further, their victim was unable to speak in their own defense, the testimony of an African American being inadmissible in court at the time. This brings strongly to mind the sanctuary cities cropping up all over the nation; areas which offer safe spaces for undocumented immigrants to live and work without fear of being ripped away from their lives and families. Had such areas existed in the United States in the era of slavery, the fate of many escaped slaves may have been different.

Douglass also reserves special ire for the Church. While a believer himself, he boldly calls out the hypocrisy of the emphatically religious who profess their adherence to the tenets of Christianity, while at the same time treating their fellow man as something less than human. Douglass also has quite a bit to say about those who use the bible to justify their hate and institutionalize bigotry. If this sounds like many of the “religious freedom” laws cropping up in states across the United States, it’s because the arguments are basically the same. Now, however, Christianity is being used primarily to target LGBT+ individuals, and codify a second-class citizenship into our country’s laws.

In these troubled times, it is both wonderful and terrible to read something written so long ago that still resonates so strongly in the present day. I feel that no matter your political leanings, this is an incredibly important book. Hopefully it will be widely read in the coming years. It is always helpful to step back as a nation and ask “Are we moving forwards?” Or are we simply covering injustices in slightly altered costume, under the guise of adhering to tradition?

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review. The Portable Frederick Douglass is currently available for purchase.