Review: In My Father’s House

I’m back, guys. I’ve been busy. Dissertation, fellowship applications, conferences. Le sigh.

But anyway, let’s celebrate. It’s November, lovelies! The days are short, there’s a crisp in the air. I’m going to try something a little different here,  in observance of #NonfictionNovember I am going to attempt to review only nonfiction books this month. I’ve got quite a healthy backlog, so here goes…

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Review for "In My Father's House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family" by Fox Butterfield (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This well-written nonfiction book begins with a very interesting statistic: that ‘5 percent of American families account for half of all crime, and 10 percent of families account for two thirds.’ This point is driven throughout the entire book with Mr. Butterfield’s multi-generational documentation of the Bogles, an impoverished White family who moved from the Reconstruction South to Texas in the early 1900’s. The story begins with the marriage of Louis Bogle and Elvie, two young people with a propensity for cons and swindles who become hard drinkers and carnival workers. They eventually have seven children, all of whom end up in prisons or reformatories for various crimes–drinking, stealing, fighting, and beating their wives.

The narrative then shifts to one of the sons of the original Bogle family, the youngest and most particularly troublesome son, nicknamed Rooster. Enabled by his mother, Rooster terrorizes his own family through physical and sexual abuse. He “marries” two women and keeps them in the same house, occasionally beating them and having several children by both. He does not allow his children to socialize outside of the family and takes them on his various criminal schemes, encouraging them to steal and even going by the state prison and telling them that they will end up there one day. Eventually all of Rooster’s children do go to either jail, prison, or state reformatories, only this time for more serious crimes–drugs, burglary, theft, rape, and murder.

Butterfield is still not finished, continuing to trace the stories of cousins, uncles, aunts, and other Bogle family members. He goes into the next generation of Rooster’s grandchildren and describes their history of meth use, burglaries, child endangerment, and more crimes. In the back of the book is an exhaustive list of over 60 Bogle family members, all of whom have either spent time in a prison or jail for various crimes.

This book does end on a bright note, with the story of one of Rooster’s grandchildren, Ashley. With strong social ties through her mother (not a Bogle), community support, and education, she graduates from college and pursues a career in the medical field. She is the first Bogle family member to graduate from college in 150 years.

This is a good book but it is somewhat depressing, as it forces you to consider how much the role of family and upbringing is overlooked in the modern theories of crime. Butterfield is careful with this argument, however. He acknowledges over and over that leaning too heavily on the link between family upbringing and crime reinforces racism, with Blacks and people of color typically being demonized and incarcerated as if they are the sole perpetrators of crime. I think this is why he chooses a White family to illustrate his point in this particular book (though his previous book I’ve reviewed, “All God’s Children,” deals with crime in a Black family).

This is an excellent read if you are interested in the criminal justice system, theories of crime/criminology, and the “nature vs. nurture” argument. It’s also cool if you just like narrative nonfiction too.

Five stars.

 

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Review: All God’s Children

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Review for "All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence" by Fox Butterfield (2008 reissue, originally published in 1995)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is fascinating. It’s a shame that the original hardcover edition is out of print and quite hard to find at any library in my city. In the end, I had to order it through interlibrary loan.

Anyway, “All God’s Children” traces five generations of the Bosket family, from their days as slaves in rural South Carolina all the way to Willie Bosket’s incarceration in 1978 as one of the youngest murderers in New York City’s history. At 15 years old, Willie, recently free from a reform school, killed two subway riders in cold blood and shot another. Under the laws of the time, the maximum he could get was 5 years. The public outcry was so great against this that the Juvenile Offender Act was passed later that year, making it possible that children as young as 13 could be tried as adults.

Fox Butterfield uses Bosket’s family history as a way to discuss the history of violence in America. Willie’s great grandfather was a violent man, his grandfather, as well as his father. Details of all of their lives and crimes are given here. He avoids the typical fluff arguments about the causes of violence (poverty, television, etc) and instead characterizes it as something deeply embedded into the fabric of American life, a product of the White slave-holding class, the pre-Civil War South. He also discusses the violence of reform schools and prison institutions whose function is to “correct” violent individuals. Willie believes he is merely the product of these institutions in its grossest form. I can’t disagree.

The amount of research in this book is exhaustive. I commend the author for writing this book. I just wish that it was more available in 2018.