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Editors’ Picks Issue 19

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The Line Becomes a River

Francisco Cantú
(Riverhead)

Dispassionate analysis and hard data have their place; so does activist passion. But for a topic as politically fraught as US–Mexico border policy, it may take true stories told with honesty and intimate knowledge to bring something closer to true understanding. Few are as well-suited for this task as Francisco Cantú, a native of the Southwest who served four years in the US Border Patrol, tracking human beings across blistering deserts and bringing them in, dead or alive.

The grandson of a Mexican, Cantú tries to treat border crossers with dignity and not think too much about what happens to them after they are deported. But his idealism wears thin fast and the intense stress of the job starts to plague his dreams. Particularly affecting are his accounts of drug cartel brutality south of the border and human trafficking north of it, in which smugglers abandon stragglers and hold migrants for ransom by their impoverished relatives.

After leaving the Patrol, Cantú gets a taste of the flip side of the immigration system when he is unable to prevent the deportation of a friend who has worked undocumented in the United States for thirty years. Cantú’s rare gift is an ability to evoke empathy for everyone caught up in this tragic situation – both those tasked with policing the border and those driven to risk their lives in the crossing. Such compassion in itself doesn’t solve the knotty question of what to do about mass migration, a reality that is roiling politics worldwide. But it’s the only good starting place in the search for a way forward.

Virgil Wander

Leif Enger
(Grove Atlantic)

front cover of Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

In recent years nonfiction book sales have outpaced fiction. This is regrettable, and Enger’s third novel shows why. Mistakenly billed as escapist literature in a time of troubling reality, it inhabits a world that can show us much about our own.

Enger captures the spirit and pathos – not to mention the linguistic and cultural quirks – of a very specific place: a hard-luck, going-nowhere Minnesota town on the shores of Lake Superior (literary territory a little north of Lake Wobegon, one reviewer has already quipped). Yet this isn’t just another literary window into the heartland. Apart from its exceptionally bad weather, fictional Greenstone could be any town left behind by industry, and you may well recognize some of his characters in your own high school yearbook.

While Virgil Wander may not match Enger’s 2001 bestseller, Peace Like a River, the Minnesotan author can still cast a magical realist spell. It only takes a pinch of the miraculous, after all, to bring lonely people together in community (of sorts) and to give their lives meaning enough to carry on.

One Person, No Vote

Carol Anderson
(Bloomsbury)

Old Jim Crow is back in a new guise, according to this new book. Carol Anderson, a historian, paints a troubling portrait of US democracy today: in at least twenty-four states, being poor, black, Native American, elderly, or young can make you an intended target of various “voter suppression” tactics enacted by state and local governments for partisan purposes.

An equal right to vote was not, of course, enshrined in the original US Constitution. But since the country’s founding, it’s a right that many have fought and died to earn. So what went wrong? In Anderson’s telling, in 2013 the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder ruling dismantled key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the landmark victory of the civil rights movement. Since then, states have passed a flurry of new laws with the stated goal of stamping out voter fraud. Yet one large survey found only thirty-one instances of fraud in over a billion votes cast. Looking behind the scenes, she concludes that these laws amount to a concerted attempt to discourage certain groups from participating in democracy.

Anderson’s writing, while meticulously researched, has a partisan tone in the sense that the voter suppression strategies she describes are almost all concocted by Republican operatives to reduce Democratic votes. Yet whether or not they agree with her politics, Christians in particular ought to grapple with her book. After all, as Martin Luther King Jr. taught us, securing equal rights for all citizens is fundamentally a moral cause, not a political one: it reflects the truth that each person is created equally in the image of God.

Maid

Stephanie Land
(Hachette)

A much-anticipated January debut, Maid is being compared to Barbara Ehrenreich’s muckraking Nickel and Dimed for the way it sheds light on the appalling conditions of those who clean the homes of the rich. But Land’s memoir is, if anything, even more dispiriting. This is no journalist going undercover with an easy ticket out at any time, but a young woman and her daughter trapped in debasing poverty and a maze of inadequate social services, with little prospect of ever escaping. (Land finds her way out, and a book deal, though she cautions against viewing her success as exemplary; most women like her, no matter how much pluck and grit they muster, will never get a chance to tell their tale.)

As a housecleaner, Land sees the dirty underside of affluent lives, and doesn’t envy their vacuous success in the least. So (whether by design or not) her book ends up being more than a simplistic indictment of a wealthy society that fails its poor; many of the problems she describes are beyond the scope of any government fix. Her own story is a case in point. Land is plunged into poverty in the first place after escaping domestic abuse, having cohabited and conceived a child with a man who didn’t want one.

Land’s book gives sharp insights into the lives of today’s working poor and offers ample reason for all people of good will to take up their cause. It also, unintentionally, suggests an additional response. Land (and the thousands like her) needs a living wage, affordable housing, and decent schools. But just as much, she – no less than the rich-but-unsatisfied denizens of the homes she cleans – could use a community: one that’s ready to come alongside her and her daughter to provide friendship, advice, and practical and spiritual support.

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