For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘poverty

The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips, New York: Riverhead Books, 2007, 290 pp.

The Well and the MineFollowing on the heels of The Funeral Dress, I guess I’ve just been in the mood for fiction of life in Appalachian coal mining towns. I wanted more of that spirit. While The Well and the Mine takes place in Alabama in the 1931, the scene and characters bare a strong resemblance and I enjoyed this book a great deal.

The Well and the Mine is the story of the Moore family. Father Albert works in the mine, mother Leta tends the home. Daughter Virgie is entering her teen years, daughter Tess is in the heart of her childhood, and brother Jack is the youngest. Each character takes turns at the narration, a technique accomplished with a short section break and a tiny, italicized indication of the new name in the indent of the new paragraph. At first, this felt convoluted and unnecessary, but it smoothed out once I became familiar with the characters, their voices and concerns. By the end, I appreciated the multiple perspectives.

The core mystery of the story is what happened at the Moore’s home on a summer night, when Tess witnessed a woman throwing a baby down the family’s well. The family and the town are horrified, and the story follows Virgie and Tess as they conduct their own investigation. Their inquiries and discoveries open their eyes to the struggles of those around them. While they are poor by any modern standards, their family’s small plot of land place them in a much more stable, well-fed position than many of their neighbors. Virgie and Tess move from anger and horror at the baby in the well to compassion and empathy for the woman who finds herself in such terrible circumstances.

However, what drives the book is not the plot, but the evocation of the characters and setting. As Fannie Flagg says in her blurb on the back, this book “gives you a whole world.” Phillips invites readers to a 1931 coal mining town. She describes the daily grind inside the coal mine, and what it does to Albert’s strong body. She gives an intricate tour of the family’s simple home, complete with the outhouse and animal dwellings in the yard. She contrasts their home with the homes of sharecroppers and African-Americans and company-owned houses. She reveals the smallness of that world, when the family goes to Birmingham, and the way segregation impacts relationships. The reader gets to see this world through the eyes of the characters, for whom it is everyday and ordinary.

I think what I enjoyed most about this book was the fact that the characters are simply good people in tough circumstances. There are no evil enemies, just a collection of circumstances and people coming together as a community to manage them. Some are more privileged than others, but no one is living well. Their only hope of survival is treating one another with some measure of kindness, compassion and mutuality–even when someone does something as disturbing as throw a baby in a well.

Advertisements

Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It), New York: HarperOne, 2011, 191 pp.

Toxic CharityI had been both intrigued and nervous about this book since it came out a few years ago. I have long wondered how many social service agencies and charities are in the business of eliminating hunger, poverty and injustice versus how many are in the business of making good business–which means securing and even increasing the number of people eligible for services, therefore growing their organization and its importance. Likewise, I share with Lupton a skepticism about how much church volunteerism serves the needs of church do-gooders versus how much it serves the needs of those supposedly being served. However, I am leery of those (generally right-leaning, Republican) thinkers who believe that all aid creates freeloaders and therefore we should eliminate all social programs, effectively punishing people who are poor or in crisis. I worried that Lupton would fall into that category, or at least support those arguments. I was hopeful that he would offer a scathing analysis of the injustice of our current economic system, including our reliance on charity for our social support system. I was fearful that he would ignore systemic injustice and insist that poverty was caused by entitlement and laziness.

Toxic Charity split the difference between my hope and my fear about it. Lupton does not blame poor people for their plight, or make claims that they should be abandoned to their own problems or “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” He acknowledges the injustice of major barriers like low wages, zones of urban blight and lack of childcare. He dismantles all our charitable endeavors and analyzes the culture of dependence they create, the submission they demand, and the way they often create more problems than they solve. This was excellent. However, the solutions he offers are all embedded in the same capitalist economic system that created the problems in the first place. Creating jobs and economic opportunity is a good thing, and I applaud Lupton’s work and writing–but I desperately wanted him to take it one more step and label our current economic system as unjust, to name the reality that capitalism depends on cheap labor and extracting value from some to send it to others. Instead, he rests with efforts to help people succeed in the system as it currently exists.

The greatest strength of Toxic Charity is its absolute take-down of our current system of charity. Lupton argues, convincingly, that few charitable institutions actually help solve the problems they were created to correct. Instead, they tend to perpetuate them or even make them worse. He criticizes this from a business and stewardship perspective, but more from the perspective of healthy relationships.

“Relationships based on need are seldom healthy. There is an implicit expectation (or at least hope) that the recipient of charity will use that assistance to better himself. … Unless the victim of misfortune exerts honest effort to regain self-reliance, the relationship between helper and helpee will tend to deteriorate. At some point accountability is required. The lack of full disclosure opens the door to suspicion and mistrust. … Relationships built on need do not reduce need. Rather, they require more and more need to continue. When one problem is solved, another must be presented in order for the relationship to continue. (60-61)

Healthy relationships require some equality between partners. Our current charitable endeavors encourage exactly the opposite–an ongoing pattern of giver and receiver, which means those relationships quickly become toxic for both parties.

His analysis extends especially deeply and well into short-term mission projects undertaken by churches. Whether it’s a day spent in a nearby inner city neighborhood, or an expensive trip overseas to build some needed house or well in a foreign country, Lupton names the reality that these journeys are far more about the needs and feelings of the givers than the receivers.  They foster a culture of dependence, remove economic development opportunities from local economies, and waste millions of dollars on unnecessary travel to bring people with no expertise to do a job they are less equipped to handle than the local population. So why do we do it? What Lupton says: because it makes us feel good. What I want Lupton to go on to say: Because it makes us feel better about our own wealth. Because it helps us sleep at night. Because it relieves our guilt about benefiting from a system that is destroying others.

Lupton doesn’t tell us to stop giving money and time to help poor people. Instead, he says that giving time and money is the cheap, easy solution to help us feel better about being good people–it’s not actually about helping people succeed. (Again, this is where I wanted him to really lay down the systemic critique, to name the reality that our charity is subsidizing an economic system that is taking advantage of people and leaving them in the dust. He doesn’t do that, but it doesn’t take away the validity and import of what he does say.) He recommends ideas like helping establish co-ops for food or childcare, creating micro-lending opportunities, and engaging in economic development. He offers a basic guideline for charity. A crisis, whether personal or communal, requires direct provision of food, clothes, cash and other basic necessities. A chronic poverty need, however, requires a different response of engagement in the communal and personal factors causing the poverty. Otherwise, he says, “when we we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, dependence, disempowerment.” (56)

The kind of true engagement Lupton proposes requires a long-term investment in relationship, a deep risk-taking on behalf of a community, and a personal and corporate investment in doing with people, not for them. Lupton summarizes his approach in an “Oath for Compassionate Service:”

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves. [I know this as Saul Alinsky’s Iron Rule–JMK]
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said–unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm. (128)

Lupton’s book, even though I wish it had gone farther and been more critical of capitalism and injustice, should be required reading for non-profit boards and directors, church pastors and mission boards, and philanthropists of all kinds.

The Lost Mother by Mary McGarry Morris, Viking, 2005, 274 pp.

Lost MotherI keep going to the library and checking out Mary McGarry Morris books, but never getting around to reading them before they are due. (This is what happens when you are a book addict. I can’t leave a library with less than 10 books at a time. Three weeks isn’t long enough to read that many novels, along with my professional reading.) I’m so grateful to have finally made it into this one, and next time I won’t return them unread.

The Lost Mother is the story of the Talcott children surviving the hardship of the Great Depression in Vermont. When the story begins, Thomas and Margaret are living in a tent in the woods, because they have lost their home to debt. Their father Henry works butchering farm animals, but work is scarce and money even more scarce. The loss of their home, however, is a minor inconvenience compared to the searing loss of their mother, who simply abandoned her family, moved to a mill town, and started a new life. The children initially believe she has left to support them and will return when times improve, but slowly they are forced to confront the truth of her abandonment.

There are a host of other characters in the book who step in to take responsibility for Thomas and Margaret, either by choice or by force. The wealthy, greedy Farleys want to take Margaret and make her their own daughter, separating her from her family forever. Aunt Lena (their mother’s sister) and Uncle Max do not want to take the children in, and their alcoholism makes it an unsafe place for the children to be. Gladys is their father’s lifelong friend. She would step in to care for them, and does what she can, but she is caring for her ailing father, whose abuse for the children makes them unable to stay there.

The story is heart-wrenching, but hopeful. Thomas and Margaret have people who want to care for them, but can’t; people who want to own them, but are thwarted; and people who could care for them, but won’t. The plot unfolds as they spend a full year making their way from one terrible situation to another. As a parent, I wonder what it would be like to know you are unable to provide for your children. No one in the story is demonized for failing the children—it is just the way things are. The narrator most often tells the story from Thomas’ perspective, and we watch him grow from a child’s view to a wizened adult one through the course of the story’s one single year.

The Lost Mother was a fast read, and a great story. It left me pondering the millions of children all over the world who are alone in this world. Thomas and Margaret’s story is not unique. Just this week, there have been multiple news stories of unaccompanied children warehoused in terrible conditions having been picked up crossing the border illegally. What is it like to be a child alone in this harsh world? Morris’ novel imagines it in one time and one place, with sorrow and with hope.

 


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

Helpful Hint

If you only want to read regular posts, click the menu for Just Reflections. If you only want to read book reviews, click the menu for Just Book Reviews.

RevGalBlogPals

NetGalley

Member & Certified Reviewer

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,663 other followers

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: