Short Reviews

Dummy

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…


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