Review: The Line Becomes a River

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Review for "The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border" by Francisco Cantu (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In keeping with #NonfictionNovember, I really liked this book. I am glad that I did not read the many negative reviews of this before picking it up, much of which is not about the content but full of personal rancor towards the author, a former Border Patrol officer. Did these reviewers even read the book? Apparently not.

What the author does do is present a pretty fair and balanced view of U.S. and Mexican lives on both sides of the border. The first section covers his early days on patrol, catching people who activate sensors in the desert. There are many stories here–desperate immigrants wishing for a better life who are deserted by their coyotes (smugglers), people who live on the border whose properties are continually trashed and broken into by immigrants, those who aid cartels through drug smuggling. Both criminals and non-criminals are almost always rounded up and deported. There are also some pretty shocking accounts of Border Patrol agents being cruel and just plain racist (destroying immigrant water sources, calling them “wets”). In addition to this, the author describes countless dead bodies, those not fortunate enough to make it out of a scorching desert hell. The middle section of the book deals with Cantu’s moral conflicts and eventual disillusionment with the work after he is assigned to a desk job. The desk job involves profiling cartels, their victims almost always killed through unimaginable violence. Border Patrol officers have a particularly high turnover rate, which, for a morally conflicted person such as Cantu, is wholly understandable.

The last section of the book is the most poignant, in my opinion. After his departure from the Border Patrol, Cantu befriends a Mexican man from Oaxaca named Jose. Although he is undocumented, he is a hardworking man with a wife and three sons. Returning from a trip to visit his mother in Oaxaca, he is caught by Border Patrol attempting to cross back into the U.S. Cantu assists the family by showing up to his trial, getting him a lawyer, taking his sons to visit him in detention. I won’t tell you Jose’s fate, other than to say that the last part of this book is not the author’s but the voice of Jose himself.

Nowhere in this book does Cantu position himself in favor of U.S. Border Patrol policies. While participating in their enforcement as an officer, he is a part of the institutional violence against immigrants, which he acknowledges. The story of Jose is a good balancing act for the critics to show that immigration presents an ever present challenge with no easy solutions. People on both sides of the border ultimately suffer.

I recommend that you don’t read the negative reviews and read this book for yourself.

Four stars.

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Review: Dear America

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Review for "Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen" by Jose Antonio Vargas (2018)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a great book. It is about life as an immigrant, but it is not about politics. Through his connection to journalism, Vargas wrote an op-ed in 2011 outing himself as undocumented. He also wrote a Time magazine cover story on the subject in 2012.

“Dear America” is mostly a story about the author, Jose Antonio Vargas, whose mother hastily put him on a plane from the Philippines to join his grandparents in America at 12 years old. He grows up in California and does not realize until he attempts to apply for a driver’s license that the paperwork provided by his grandfather was fake. He confides in several trusted colleagues and administrators, who eventually get him to college and into several prestigious journalism gigs, despite his undocumented status.

Vargas explores how the “path” to citizenship does not exist for him and many, many other people. He cannot simply apply for legal citizenship, because he came here illegally and risks deportation. Leaving the U.S. and returning to the Philippines effectively bans him from coming back for 10 years, and even then, approval for U.S. citizenship is not guaranteed. He could attempt to pull off a sham marriage (i.e., marrying a U.S. citizen for a green card), but Vargas refuses to do this because he is gay. As a result, he discusses a sense of constant homelessness even though he considers America his country. Many aspects of American life are continually out of reach for him because he is undocumented. Though he pays taxes through his job, in many states, he cannot drive or legally work. He cannot travel overseas and has been effectively cut off from his extended family. He also faces constant fear of detainment and deportation, which he goes through later on in the book.

Overall, this is a short book that puts a human face on the argument around illegal immigration, which is far more complex than building walls and talk about caravans. What does it mean to be an American? If it is simply a matter of being born on U.S. soil, then I, as a ‘natural’ resident, did not “do” anything to earn my status. Why do we as citizens feel the need to make people like the author do the same? Lots of complex arguments here, many of which have no quick answers.

Definitely recommend this book.

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.