Books That Ask Questions
It is the time of the year when lists of “summer reading suggestions” circulate. Here’s another.
But this is a bit more than a list of good books. It is a reflection on how easily we the living assume a position of moral superiority in relation to those who lived at other times and in other places.
If you enjoy a well written mystery/ espionage novel, check out the books of Phillip Kerr in his Bernie Gunther series.
The thing that sets Kerr apart in his genre is that his books are set in Nazi Germany. His protagonist is not a Nazi Party member, but he does find himself working sometimes directly, other times indirectly for the Nazi’s. Other characters in Kerr’s novels are Party members, some fitting the stereotype of cruel and mendacious, but others caught by a desire to advance their career or to protect their family from the Gestapo’s brutality. Kerr even gives us characters who are intelligent and attractive who like “the Leader,” i.e. Hitler.
At least for this reader, Kerr’s novels pull the rug out from under any certainty that I would have been different or better had I been born, as my father, in 1917, but in Berlin or Munich.
Recent D-Day remembrances gave Americans an opportunity to recall our role in WWII and our high moral ground in “the good war.” But as that remembrance took place in the Trump era it becomes harder to assume American moral superiority or easily judge the people in Philip Kerr’s novels.
The questions of moral complexity are pressed even more forcefully in Daniel J. Sharfstein’s non-fiction book, Thunder In the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard and the Nez Perce War.
Sharfstein, a law and history professor at Vanderbilt, handles a lot of material in a very readable, even compelling, fashion. General Howard is a crucible of moral complexity and of the contradictions of U.S. history in his time. A Civil War General who championed African-Americans — Howard University is named after him — he also ruthlessly pursued and decimated the Nez Perce on their historic but failed attempt to flee to Canada.
Howard’s story parallels U.S. history, simultaneously fighting a war against slavery in the south while, at the same time slaughtering Native Americans and destroying their cultures in the west.
Reviewer John Railey comments, “Many of us shake our heads endlessly at the shabby treatment our ancestors rendered on Indians even as enjoy the lands stolen from them. Would our leaders have handled the situation much differently today? Would we object? And how does that relate to how we now treat some other oppressed people, immigrants, including refugees fleeing war-torn countries our nation has failed to help pacify? Sharfstein raises those questions . . .”
And those questions strike close to home. For years I have declared my love of the Wallowas. Who else loved this land? The Nez Perce. And they were driven from here in the 1870’s — not really so long ago. Slowly, there have been changes, but very slowly. Today the Nez Perce are a major player here in managing the fishery. More Nez Perce are actually living in the County than in the recent past. But the past is not easily redressed, or even acknowledged.
Another excellent book that asks hard questions about a controversial and contemporary issue, is American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee. Blakeslee gives us an account of the flagship of wolf re-introduction projects, the one that took place at Yellowstone Park early in this century.
His account is made vivid both by its human characters, but also by individual wolves the reader comes to know. In particular, a remarkable female, O-Six, is a kind of heroine.
Wolf re-introduction in the west, particularly the Northern Rockies (Idaho, Montano, Wyoming and parts of Washington and Oregon) continues to be extremely controversial. It’s a hot button issue here in Wallowa County. Blakeslee’s account, though supportive of the re-introduction, is not simple or sentimental. Moreover, it’s a great story.
Thinking-twice about our assumed moral superiority to our ancestors is not to say we should be quiescent in the face of the issues of our day, particularly of race and immigration. Of course not. But then neither should we too quickly or easily condemn the actions and choices of those in an early time and different place with the assurance that “I/ we would never have done that!”
Whenever I share reading suggestions, I also like to invite you readers to share your own with me. You’ve turned me onto some great books in the past, for which I’m grateful. Happy summer reading!