Book Review Club: White Trash by Nancy Isenberg #review #history #sociology

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

by Nancy Isenberg
History / Sociology
Audio book narrated by Kirsten Potter
White Trash cover

  • The New York Times bestseller
  • A New York Times Notable and Critics’ Top Book of 2016
  • Longlisted for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction
  • One of NPR’s 10 Best Books Of 2016 Faced Tough Topics Head On
  • NPR’s Book Concierge Guide To 2016’s Great Reads
  • San Francisco Chronicle‘s Best of 2016: 100 recommended books
  • A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2016
  • Globe & Mail 100 Best of 2016
  • Goodreads Best History & Biography 2016

As you can see by the list of accolades above, this is an excellent book. I listened to the whole thing in my car and never lost interest. Isenberg starts in colonial America, explaining how England saw it’s colonies as dumping ground for what they called “waste people”. In other words, the landless poor. Instead of recognizing that these people were poorly fed, clothed, etc. the elites simply saw them as inferior. This attitude has persisted down to the present day. She implies that part of the relentless hounding of Bill Clinton may have been because he was seen as “white trash” and therefore, not good enough to be president, no matter his natural talents and abilities. Ditto for Sarah Palin, who was denigrated as a Wasilla hillbilly.

I found it very interesting to see American history presented through the prism of class. That’s not the way it’s taught in the schools, or at least not when I was a kid. Class structure has been used by the elites to divide the masses and stay in power throughout history. During the Civil War period, the planter elites had to give the Southern poor whites reasons to fight, when they really had nothing to gain by supporting the slave owners. So the planters denigrated Northern whites by calling them mudsills, dirt farmers and grease monkeys. (Personally I come from a long line of dirt farmers and grease monkeys.) Isenberg twice quotes Lyndon Johnson saying, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Highly recommended.

Kirsten Potter has a pleasant voice, though some of her pronunciation choices were odd and jarring. Enough to be noticeable, but not enough for me to not recommend the audiobook.


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Book #Review Club: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

paperback cover

paperback cover

It’s time for Book Review Club again and my choice this month is It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. I read the audiobook narrated by Grover Gardner.

Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here about how facism could possibly come to the US in the 1930’s. In his tale, a populist demagogue, Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, defeats Franklin Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936 and wins the general election over Republican Walt Trowbridge. Once in office, Buzz replaces our democratic republic with a corporate state and rules with a heavy hand, largely through his private army, the new Minute Men.

The main character is Doremus Jessup, a 60ish newspaper editor in Fort Beulah, Vermont, who opposes the regime, though quietly at first. Tragedy strikes when he goes public with his distaste for the “corpos” and he has to find a way to work underground. His nemesis is Shad LeDue who used to work (none too diligently) as the Jessup’s hired man. In the new regime Shad becomes the district commander of the MM’s.

audiobook cover

audio cover

While I found the book interesting, it is a little slow in places, but gets better toward the end. Though I found the ending unsatisfying, I understand that European fascism was a work in progress when Lewis was writing, and it wasn’t clear if or how it would all end. I enjoyed Grover Gardner’s narration. He did a good job of making the narrator sound like an old-time New Englander without going full nasal Down Easter.

Recommended for followers of current affairs. Authoritarianism seems to be making a comeback in various places around the world, and I found it interesting to compare Lewis’s vision of fascism with contemporary nationalism.

As always, click on the graphic below for more great reviews in Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club.

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@Barrie Summy