Children of Crisis: Volume II, Migrants, Sharecroppers and Mountaineers

by Robert Coles
Atlantic-Little, 653 pp., $12.50

Children of Crisis: Volume III, The South Goes North

by Robert Coles
Brown, 687 pp., $12.50

Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist and a man of insight and warm sympathy. These qualifications and ten years of hard and lonely work have enabled him to write a series of books for which the nation will owe him a lasting debt. These books deserve to rank with—and, indeed, transcend—W. A. Cash’s The Mind of the South and James Baird Weaver’s A Call to Action. The two new volumes and their forerunner, A Study of Courage and Fear, are the definitive work on America’s poor and powerless in the twentieth century.

The American democracy—Winston Churchill’s “Great Republic”—is in its very survival a tremendous success story. When one looks back across its history it seems impossible that it could have held together at all in the face of the immense forces that have tended always toward its disintegration. In the beginning it was three and a half million square miles of wilderness—vast and alien and, to Europeans, frightful. It was so immense that as it was divided a single state could be larger than a European empire. Distance between the parts made them foreign to one another, and since strangers are almost inevitably enemies, its regionalism spawned antagonisms and hatreds.

The human materials that built our country in Governor William Bradford’s “hideous wilderness” were, to say the least, unpromising. There were half a million or so red Indians, trusting tribesmen whom white brutality promptly turned into determined and ruthless warriors. There were adventurers in search of gold and land, religious zealots in whom religion often failed to equate with goodness, impoverished younger sons of Old World aristocracies, embittered Scotch-Irish broken by Parliament’s repressive economic policies, Scottish highlanders “cleared” by landlords who wanted to pasture sheep on their fields, multitudes of Germans uprooted by a century-long war, a million terrified Africans herded into the holds of slave ships, Jews fleeing from Russian and Polish pogroms, another million of famine-plagued Irish, penniless peasants from Italy and the Balkans, Chinese coolies hauled in to build railroads, quiet Japanese farmers who heard rumors of the “Golden State”—these and a sprinkling of great scientists and philosophers were among our forebears.

They came in wave after wave for three hundred years, building towns, clearing fields, inventing and applying new tools in response to a gigantic environmental challenge, educating, exploiting one another and the land, greedily piling up private wealth, and always and everywhere squabbling among their own groups and others. The tensions and the misunderstandings erupted in a Civil War that plowed under 650,000 men. They left behind also a legacy of human woe that now appears almost immedicable.

America is a “great” country, as our politicians endlessly remind us. It could have been a much greater and far less troubled country if its people and government had acted with foresight and compassion instead of cruelty or indifference to some of the opportunities afforded by its history.

For example, after Sequoia invented a Cherokee alphabet, that nation and the Creeks and some of their…

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