The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson upheld a Louisiana law mandating separate railroad cars. This ignominious ruling, effectively affirming the constitutionality of segregation, was one of the court’s worst and for more than half-a-century provided the legal foundation for the system of racial inequality known as Jim Crow. In Separate, Steve Luxenberg, a longtime Washington Post editor, not only engagingly recounts the stories of several key people involved in the case; he also persuasively portrays it as the culmination of a tumultuous six decades that stretched from the early struggles of Frederick Douglass and others to defy railcar segregation in the 1840s through the Civil War and emancipation years to the final repudiation of Reconstruction.
Truer’s revelatory history tells much more than the story of “Native America from 1890 to the present.” To understand 1890—the date of the massacre of 150 Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee, which seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of America’s indigenous peoples—we have to know the innumerable ways the U.S. had already tried to deal with its “Indian problem,” how Europeans had treated the Natives from first contact, and what life was like on the continent during the centuries before it was “discovered” by whites. Treuer covers this complicated history in detail; if the number of treaties, acts, and battles is dizzying, what comes through clearly is that there is no single “Indian” story. Each tribe—and often each clan within the tribe—occupies distinct cultural and geographical landscapes, and each has been impacted differently by the various means whites have used to try to control them. These stories are fascinating and long overdue—without them, the story of America, and especially of the West, has been both partial and seriously impoverished. Treuer’s central thesis, however, is that despite whites’ relentless battle to exterminate Natives—a mission often explicitly stated as that—they failed. Wounded Knee was not the end of the story, just one chapter in an ongoing saga that gradually led from allotment, U.S. citizenship, the Indian Reorganization Act, and the Termination Act, to the American Indian Movement, casinos, and more enterprises initiated by Natives themselves. Growing up on Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota, Treuer, a member of the Ojibwe, did not see “ruined lives,” but people who could “choose to be Indian.” Since 1890, Native populations have grown—and grown stronger.
I put off reading The Library Book by Susan Orlean because. . . enough about books already! But I’m glad I finally decided to pick it up. Once I did, it was hard to put down. Not only does Orlean remind us of the extraordinary role that libraries play in the civic life of our communities, she showcases her skill at narrative reconstruction. The book is about the fire that consumed the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, the investigation that followed, and the ramifications of such destruction on people throughout the community (including the main suspect in what was widely assumed to be an act of arson). Fascinating!