Ten Lost Years 1929-1939: Memories of Canadians Who Survived the Depression
by Barry Broadfoot
Doubleday, 312 pp., $7.95
by Ernest Tidyman
Little, Brown, 277 pp., $6.95
Remaking Asia: Essays on the American Uses of Power
edited by Mark Selden
Pantheon, 400 pp., $3.45 (paper)
All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community
by Carol Stack
Harper & Row, 192 pp., $7.95
Like Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, this is an oral record of the Depression. The voices record what it was like to be a farmer or a fruitpicker or a hustler in Saskatchewan and Winnipeg and Montreal, instead of Arkansas and Chicago and Maine: in Canada it was even tougher than in the States, if we are to trust the subjective accounts of the people Broadfoot has interviewed. For many it was such a painful, degrading experience that “a conspiracy of silence” seems to exist about those years, or, as a now-prosperous businessman says, people prefer to keep it out of sight “like the pregnant and unmarried daughter at the Christmas feast or the retarded son when the priest comes to call.”
Yet once Broadfoot’s subjects start remembering, their recollections are extraordinarily vivid: the “dull, dull food” which prompted recurrent fantasies of steaks and fruit and overflowing Sunday dinner tables; the bartering of dental care for firewood or apples and butter for beef. And in one memorable case, the bartering of kids—”Doreen, she was born in August so we swapped her for vegetables.” Pitiful wages, the dole, job lines, no shoes, no toys for the children, stealing just to keep even, the hurt pride of the men, the stubborn endurance of the women. Broadfoot has edited and sifted skillfully to bring that lost decade with its shattered dreams and foreclosed mortgages into affecting focus.
An account, by the author of Shaft, of the arrest, imprisonment, and “hospitalization” of a young Chicago black who is “deaf, mute, illiterate, probably ineducable now, possibly psychotic and perhaps brain-damaged by disease and accident in childhood.” When Donald Lang was arrested on circumstantial evidence for murdering a streetwalker, he reenacted the crime by making stabbing motions with his penknife. But his lawyer Lowell Myers—also deaf—contends that Lang was not confessing to the crime, but rather offering an eyewitness report. Since Lang knows no language—words, lips, or signs—there is no way to validate either interpretation; and it is clear that he cannot understand courtroom proceedings.
This raises a legal problem: if he cannot stand trial, he will be remanded to the custody of an institution until he is judged fit to do so—meaning, Myers is convinced, for the rest of his life, since Lang can never learn a language. But Lang has managed to support himself by unloading trucks and doing other manual jobs for some time (indeed, he is a superior worker); is it right to put him away? The lower courts thought so, but an appeal to the state supreme court permitted Myers to waive Lang’s rights to a hearing on whether he is competent to stand trial, and he prepared to defend his client against the charges. The case was dropped when the state could not produce its witnesses and Lang was freed. But then another prostitute was killed, and once again it was unclear whether the deaf-mute tried to “confess” or what the circumstantial evidence might mean.
Tidyman’s report of the trial is concise and thorough. His investigation of Lang’s condition, buttressed by documents from hospitals, court-appointed and private specialists, ends with Lang convicted and living in Cook County jail, where he carries messages for the warden. Tidyman presents Lang as the victim of a callous, inflexible system of justice, but admits that the state had a strong argument to make in this unique and peculiarly painful case.
Nine essays on neocolonialism in Asia which describe the major Western powers’ financial takeover of small, resource-rich nations. Three of the contributions are excellent. “The International Monetary Debt and Indonesian Debt Slavery” by Cheryl Payer documents how, through International Monetary Fund “stabilization packages,” Indonesia’s foreign debt tripled from 1961 to 1967, and its dollar outflow went from $200 million to $990 million, while the massacre of perhaps half a million people helped to secure a proimperialist regime. An essay by Thomas Weisskopf exposes India’s bondage to Western “oil, drugs, and fertilizers,” to “Food For Peace” market disruption, and to private enterprise imposed by the World Bank; he argues that the results are evident in India’s debt service payments which multiplied twenty times in ten years. Herbert Bix forcefully demonstrates the effects of post-World War II American occupation and financial control on Japanese agriculture and unions.
But Malcolm Caldwell’s spotty analysis of “Oil Imperialism” by the US and Japan accepts uncritically the Club of Rome projections for fuel resources; an essay on the Asian Development Bank merely indicates the high interest rates charged; and in a superficial manner the “green revolution” in Thailand is credited with destroying Thai peasant society. Other articles implicate the CIA “financial establishment” in Vietnam and argue that oil, not simple independence, is essential to understanding the Okinawan issue. The book as a whole deepens our understanding and may be particularly useful to those who suspect that American military force is not the only factor in the Asian political and economic equation.
An examination of kin networks among poor blacks. The author, an anthropologist, lived in a black household for an extended time, which enabled her to avoid the common errors of restricting her data to the established black community and projecting her own familial patterns on to her subjects. She wishes to demonstrate that models such as the nuclear and matrifocal family—while adequate for the middle class—are not applicable to those she has observed.
The destitution faced by such families prevents their fulfilling basic living needs; they are thus forced to establish a broad network of interdependence based on kin and friendship. The network effectively replaces the nuclear family as the primary unit of social organization. Goods and services, especially child care, are swapped. A child may be raised for varying intervals by a grandmother, a mother, a paternal aunt, or a mother’s ex-boyfriend; such changes may be due to death, eviction, other hardships, personal obligation to a friend who desires the child, or whim. Often an absentee father assumes an active role. An ethic of obligation pervades the nexus, maintained by a “precarious balance of trust and profit.” The circle constantly expands, fed by the unfulfilled needs of its members. While Stack has not completely refuted notions about the “culture of poverty” as she intended, she has clearly made a significant contribution to the sociology of poverty.
(Notice in this section does not preclude review of these books in later issues.)
Copyright © 1974 by Kirkus Service, Inc., a subsidiary of The New York Review of Books.