Chicago’s Lincoln Park – A Study of Changing Neighborhood

Cycling through Chicago neighborhoods, walking in this fascinating city, I often wonder about its development. Who built what and why? How did we end up with our city of neighborhoods, our parks, our nodes of this and that? The architecture, the public and private spaces of this city, are extraordinarily interesting. Add to that the city’s rich, vibrant and often troubling history and even more questions arise. Why are we so segregated? Why are some parts of the city so wealthy and others so much less so? It doesn’t seem to have much to do with geography. There’s no elevated part of the city that overlooks the rest. Chicago is a flat metropolis and public transportation, while important, does not offer a guarantee of an improved infrastructure or a healthier neighborhood.

Are there two inexorable neighborhood trends in the city: gentrification with exclusion or under investment with poverty?

Recently I read a short volume that helps to answer these questions, at least in one Chicago neighborhood. Daniel Kay Hertz’s The Battle of Lincoln Park: Urban Renewal and Gentrification in Chicago is an accessible study that could be considered local history. Read it carefully, though, and it offers more. It is a case study, a window into how politics, racism, and economics intertwine in the creation of our built environment. Hertz is a Chicago native who knows his way around the city’s economy and politics. He’s a reliable guide in this book, which unpacks and questions the dynamics of gentrification. It is well-written, thoughtfully considered and chock full of smart analysis. My greatest complaint is that it is light on maps. They would have given the book even more punch.

Lincoln Park is a community on the north side of Chicago, bordering Lake Michigan. In the years after World War II, it was a dynamic neighborhood filled with a diversity of backgrounds, incomes, races and economic activity. Though certainly not edenic and clearly suffering from the long-term effects of the Great Depression, Lincoln Park had much going for it. It appealed to artists and other creative types after the war. Knowingly or not, deep changes were coming. It is from these first influx of post-war residents that Hertz starts his story. He follows them, and the shifts in the neighborhood, for the coming decades. There’s increased movement by white middle class people, a push for urban renewal and slum-clearance, which disrupts neighborhoods, and the organization of community groups who preach inclusivity while promoting practices that drive less affluent community members out. All of this happens in phases, usually connected to broader economic trends. By the 1960s, the neighborhood has greatly stressed, particularly as a vibrant and politically active Puerto Rican community was displaced. Those changes led to violence and riots.

Architecturally, multiple-family dwellings are replaced by single family homes. This brings in new types of families and excludes those with lesser means. The population dips as wealth ticks up. Federal dollars speed up the rate of transformation. A few large developments shape the community further, each of which involve “clearance”, or removing buildings of less property value, under the flag of “improving the community.” These are highly contested politically charged affairs. Hertz stresses, though, that the underlying transformation is steady and ongoing, with or without the big projects proceeding. From 1945 to 1970, the span of this book, Lincoln Park is the site of significant and long-lasting change. It has continued, too, as have changes and gentrification in many other parts of the city.

Hertz does a good job presenting different perspectives from the neighborhood. He’s very interested in giving voice to those that were not able to exercise much political power. Gentrification can cause real pain and harm. It can also bring benefits to an under-resourced area. Ultimately, Hertz is less concerned about policy and more in telling a story of the built environment. Hertz pays close attention to who did what and why during those years. It begs the question of economic gain and problematizes the idea of a “nice” neighborhood. That is a loaded issue, particularly when one considers who is determining it and why. There is much more to community than property values. Or large single-family houses. Reading his book and walking Lincoln Park, it is much easier to understand the neighborhood and, importantly, to think about how other neighborhoods have and are changing. It calls into question what people think of as community and why. That is a very important question, one we need to continue to address if we are to have a healthy city.

David Potash

The Defender: A Powerful Voice for Black Americans

The story of Chicago’s The Defender, perhaps America’s preeminent Black newspaper of the 20th century, is the history of race and racism in the city and the nation. It’s been an extraordinarily important publication, an essential voice for Black community and a tireless advocate for racial justice and agency, for over a century. Ethan Michaeli’s hefty book, The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, is a sprawling account of the newspaper, strong on personalities and affection. It is tome at 633 pages, yet is still leaves at least this reader with questions. More than a history of a business, Micheali’s volume shines a provocative light on the intersection of The Defender, those that made it, the stories that it told, and the communities in which it was read.

The Defender was the brain child of Robert Abbott, a fascinating Black entrepreneur from Georgia who visited Chicago’s 1893 World Colombian Exposition as a young man. Among his many skills, he was a talented singer and a member of the Hampton Quartet. Abbott, impressed with the city’s Black professionals and keen on the opportunities he saw in the growing metropolis, decided to move to Chicago and become a lawyer. Plans changed as Abbott’s law career did not take off as expected. Knowing a bit about printing from a relative, Abbott judged that the city’s growing Black community needed a newspaper. Borrowing money and leaning on friends and acquaintances, he started The Defender in 1905 with an initial print run of 300. His offices were in his landlady’s dining room. The paper, with a mission as a defender of Abbott’s race, was truly a visionary enterprise. From those small steps, Abbott’s drive, brilliance and amazing work built the organization and a paper with international impact.

Initially read on the South Side of Chicago, The Defender was passed from reader to reader. Importantly, the newspaper was picked up by Pullman porters, many of whom lived or traveled through Chicago, increasing its scope. Over time, Abbott attracted a cadre outstanding journalists and writers, like Ida B. Wells and Langston Hughes. The paper was tireless in its attention to racism, opportunity and justice. It was relentless in its descriptions and criticisms of lynchings and other injustices, especially in the South. The paper investigated and reported factually racist atrocities and lynchings, in direct contrast to what white publications printed. Abbott and members of the papers were harassed and threatened, but they pressed on, unfazed. The paper’s work accelerated the political and cultural organizations of within Black Chicago, and was an extraordinarily important factor in the Great Migration. Abbott and the paper initiated the Bud Billiken parade in 1929, a celebration that has grown to being the nation’s largest African-American parade. It is a wonderful August event, and Michaeli cleverly draws the reader into his work by opening with a young Barack Obama at the event.

John H. Sengstacke, Abbott’s nephew, took over the paper in 1940 followings Abbott’s death. The Defender played a key role in politics and race issues at the city, state and national level through World War II, pushing hard for civil rights and the integration of the military. Facing strong competition from other Black newspaper by this time, Defender journalists and editors were prominent and active. That key scope extended through the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and beyond. Political and cultural leaders needed the newspaper’s attention, especially as more Blacks voted and acquired wealth and influence. It is difficult to overstate the key role that The Defender served in keeping Black communities informed and engaged.

Michaeli’s book describes all of this very well. He’s a talented writer with a good eye for detail. Consistently using the paper as a primary source, he has rich material to engage the reader. And as The Defender was active across the continent for decades, there’s more than enough history to reference and recount. Michaeli’s attention to the violence and prejudice that The Defender covered very strong. He appreciates, as did the newspaper’s staff and readership, the harsh realities of Black Americans. He underscores, too, that racial justice was only achieved through suffering and struggle. The book offers a powerful reminder of just how constant racial bigotry and violence were a prominent throughout the twentieth century.

On the other hand, the lengthy book could have been more effective with greater attention to context and history. Michaeli does reference some of the important historical scholarship that helps to explain the big picture, but I did not come away with the sense that he was comfortable crafting his history in that realm. I understand that this would have changed the book. Nonetheless, for those not familiar with twentieth century American history, or the history of Chicago, The Defender moves quickly and makes assumptions. Some of this is simply how the author approached the material. Michaeli, a white University of Chicago English major, took a job as a copy editor at the Defender a year after graduation in 1991. He stayed at the paper for five years, working his way up to journalist, and learning about Chicago, racism, and American history along the way. Five hundred pages into the book – its structure is chronological – Michaeli introduces himself, writes about his ignorance of race and history, and explains his journey to understanding through his job and the work of the newspaper. As he notes, the experience “filled in so many blanks in American history left by the textbooks of my youth and showed me how things really work.”

At the start of the 1900s, America had more than 20,000 newspapers. Many of these publications represented communities ignored by mainstream presses. Their function was much more than reporting the news. These newspapers were critical in the development of group identity and political mobilization, particularly as the country wrestled with issues of suffrage, political participation, and the meaning of being an American. Now read mostly by graduate students, the vast majority of these papers have long been assigned to archives, their readership and influence waning over the decades. The Defender had a much greater impact than most and has lasted longer than most. It still exists online and still has an important voice. Michaeli’s book goes far in telling that story.

David Potash

Extraordinary Aviator, Extraordinary Life

Fate is the Hunter: A Pilot’s Memoir is considered by many (count playwright David Mamet on the list) as one of the best books ever written about aviation. Penned by Ernest K. Gann and published in 1964, it remains in print today. It’s an extraordinarily engrossing read. And as wonderful a book as it is, learning about Gann is just as exciting. First, though, a bit about this moving book.

Fate is the Hunter is an interconnected series of stories, reflections and observations by Gann about his life as a pilot. He started flying airplanes professionally in the years before World War II, learning his skills in a nascent industry, filled with larger than life characters and ever present danger. He shares virtually nothing of his life not as a pilot. The memoir is devoid of romance, family and pursuits outside of aviation. But he writes so well, he tells such good stories, that it is only after finishing that you might wonder why he didn’t tell us more. On the page, Gann is a man obsessed, focused and driven, by flight. And what a rich series of experiences he has, from those early days to his time in the war to life as a pilot in peacetime. He flew in the United States, South America, Europe and Asia – literally all over the world. He battle with weather, with technology, with all manner of challenges, and he considers himself extremely fortunate to have survived. The book’s title tells all – these early pilots tempted fate. Sections of the memoir were turned into a film with the same name.

Gann the person is worthy of biography on his own. Born in Nebraska in 1910, Gann was brilliant, curious and restless. His parents had money and tried to give him discipline by sending him to a military high school. It’s hard to see that it had a significant effect; Gann consistently pushed himself and the envelope, never really settling down. After graduation, he did a couple of years at Yale, but left to try his hand on Broadway, working both behind the scenes and doing some acting. Shuttling between New York and Chicago, Gann married and became a projectionist at Radio City Music Hall – as well as a cartoonist and filmmaker. The couple moved to upstate New York – Rockland County, nearby a local airport – where Gann became ever more committed to flying, first as an avocation and then as a career. With limited employment opportunities, he relocated his family to Hollywood, where he looked for work and gave flying lessons and charters on the side. He moved the family back to New York after an altercation on a job. Gann vowed to leave show business for aviation.

Starting in 1938 as a First Officer for American Airlines, Gann began his career as a pilot. Like many in the domestic aviation industry, he became part of the military in WWII, volunteering to do his part. He flew in the North Atlantic, then in South America, and then across “The Hump” in the Himalayas. After the war, Gann returned to passenger flight piloting, relocating his family in San Francisco. He also started a commercial fishing venture that did not make money. Gann had a longstanding love of boating, too. Through it all, he was writing.

Gann’s first novel was written in 1944 and it was remade into a movie a few years later. He would write twenty more novels, plus several memoirs. Many of these works became movies or screenplays. Gann’s storytelling expertise, coupled with his extraordinarily interesting life, came together in the creative process. He found financial success and made quite a mark, especially in aviation. He passed away in 1991. Gann’s “writing shed” is now at the Experimental Aviation Association’s museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

I enthusiastically recommend Fate is the Hunter: A Pilot’s Memoir – it’s a gem of a book. And I’ll keep you posted, too; I’m going to explore more of Gann’s writing. If it’s anything like the memoir, there’s a lot more good Gann to be read.

David Potash

Turning the Soil of 19th Century Literature

Students of American literature of the late 19th century cover a well-known cadre of writers. Henry James, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, William Dean Howells, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe stand out as fine examples. Decades ago when I was an English major, I learned about these authors and the broader literary trends of the period. Many of the popular works of the Gilded Age are marked by writerly care and precise language. There’s quite a bit of really good literature to read.

These authors, though, are not the only ones worthy of our consideration. America was fortunate to have many accomplished voices in the late 1800s, voices that we would be well-served to remember. Anne Boyd Rioux, a professor of English at the University of New Orleans, has brought her considerable skills to elevate one of those authors, Constance Fenimore Woolson. In addition to penning a biography of Woolson, Rioux edited an interesting selection of Woolson’s shorter works, Miss Grief and Other Stories. With a foreword by Colm Toibin and light framing by Rioux, this is an accessible and thoughtful introduction to Woolson.

Born in 1840, Woolson lived in the Midwest, traveled through the south and New England before spending her final years in Europe. She died in 1893, either jumping or falling to her death in Venice. Smart, focused on her career and prolific, she wrote novels, short stories, poetry and even a children’s book. Her efforts appeared regularly in popular publications like The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine. Never married and deaf in her later years, Woolson comes across in the biographical material as a talented but isolated creative force. She was friends with Henry James. Their relationship has been the focus of several studies.

Woolson’s writing is of the period. It reflects her context, her perspective, and her acute powers of observation. It cannot be hurried if one is to appreciate it. There’s a deliberate attention to detail Woolson’s prose, particularly when she focuses on what might be marginalized figures or circumstances in the hands of other authors. She is also quite attentive to place, the particular language of a region, the topography, flora and fauna. It does not diminish her writing and instead gives a realistic foundation. Sitting down with Woolson is to immerse oneself into another world, recognizable but still distinct.

It remains to be seen if future English majors will study Woolson. Whether they do or do not, her work serves as a welcome alternative to the well-known. And a deep thanks to Anne Boyd Rioux, too, for calling her out and getting her republished.

David Potash

Contemporary French Horror

“The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.”

From that ice cold and clinical horrific opening, Leila Slimani‘s The Perfect Nanny draws us in, enrages us, engages us, disgusts us and toys with us. The best-selling novel of France in 2016 under the title “Chanson Douce” (Lullaby), the book was translated into English and re-titled with something more appropriate for the American reader. It is a difficult and unforgettable read, even though the text moves quickly with pacing akin to a potboiler. Rarely have I wanted to turn the page – and dreaded turning the page – with the same intensity. I finished it in one sitting. A few days later, went back to re-read certain sections.

The story is about the murder of two children by their nanny. Inspired by a New York City case, Slimani stated, the novel is its own creation, a study of Parisian life and work. This is not non-fiction dressed up. It is an invention, a creative endeavor, with most of the trappings of fact. There’s a precision to it. Slimani spins out her tale with journalistic precision. She has worked as a reporter and it shows.

In The Perfect Nanny there are no surprises, no hidden secrets. It opens with the murder, goes back in time, and finishes with the children’s death. Slimani avoids moralizing and speculation. She handles her characters with care and attention. We see the why and how of the relationships between children and nanny, children and parents, parents and nanny, and between the father and mother. Each of the characters are drawn as complex, imperfect people. They feel real.

The absence of a larger sense-making is dark. On the other hand, it is often authentic. Why or how could something like the murder of two children happen? There can be no reasons, no explanation.

Slimani writes very well but very good writing is no guarantee of a best-seller. True crime and crime in general are also popular, but they, too, do not automatically generate sales. What makes The Perfect Nanny so effective is the mix of topic and style. Slimani tapped into a primal fear, one that can grab every parent by the heart and not let go. There are few important novels about motherhood, and fewer still that map out a horror like this. It is both extraordinary and, in Slimani’s hand, all too possible. The parents at the heart of the film make reasonable choices. Far from perfect, they are also far from indifferent. Their everyday qualities, like that of their children, bring the horror home. They are two professionals, working to make better lives for themselves and their family, dependent upon others.

The Perfect Nanny is a horror story well-suited the twenty-first century, a crime of violence without meaning or catharsis.

David Potash

Sports and Sentimentality, Courtesy of Jerry Izenberg

Growing up in northern New Jersey, back in the 1970s, I was always the first one in the family to get up. My routine during the school week was rock solid. I’d head downstairs, take the dog out, pick up a copy of the newspaper – we got the Newark Star-Ledger, bring the dog in and feed her, start to brew a pot of coffee for my parents, and then, at long last, dig into the sports section of the paper. Sports always came first – even as so many New York teams in the 70s were awful. A hurrah for Joe Pisarcik.

The Ledger’s sport section was always comprehensive. They printed late night scores from the west coast, covered all the sports, and several times a week, a column by Jerry Izenberg would grace the pages. Izenberg wrote the way that I imagined old school sports writers did, with rich language, lots of adjectives, and stories of heroism, triumph and catastrophe. I pictured him in a fedora with a cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth like a character from The Front Page, hammering away at manual typewriter. His columns were interesting and engaging, offering a different take on sports. They were like to the older guys who spent time at the breakfast diner in the center of town.

Recently I was given a copy of his 1989 book, The Jerry Izenberg Collection. Truth in advertising: it is exactly as billed, a collection of Izenberg’s columns. Reading it reminded me of those morning and the consistent tone and perspective of his work. Izenberg is still at it – he’s 90 – and recently published a novel.

The collection is a testimonial to Izenberg’s interest in people and his preternatural sentimentality. He specializes in a particular kind of traditional male ethos that jumps headfirst into emotions. In the hands of a different writer, in the context of other topics, it would ring as false and maudlin. But when writing about boxers, jockeys, gamblers and football players it seems all the more appropriate. Damon Runyon, perhaps?

Izenberg’s gift is to write about intimate issues in a way that male sport fans can relate. And I hope others, too. It’s his secret power – and I cannot think of many other sportswriters able to do it as effectively.

So if you find a copy, curl up with a beer and some Kleenex – it’s a Jerry Izenberg special.

David Potash

Worthy of Re-Reading, Again and Again: Kendi on Antiracism

Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist is one of the most important books on racism written in the last few years. Kendi, a brilliant and prolific scholar, writer and pubic intellectual, was named by Time Magazine as one of 2020’s most influential people. If you have not read this book, I urge you to find a copy and spend some time with it. And if you did pick it up over the past year, I recommend finding time to re-read it. It contains much to consider and reconsider.

Kendi’s book is both autobiographical and scholarly. He uses his own journey, his successes and failures, his strengths and his weaknesses, to guide us through the myriad of ways that race and racism intertwine and affect how we see the world and interact with each other. Kendi avoids the phrase “systemic racism” – and makes us understand how “systemic” is redundant. He explains how omnipresent racist thought is; it is in the air that we grown accustomed to breathing. To choose to become antiracist is a radical act – and demands a new consciousness. Lifting from DuBois and expanding on his work, Kendi recasts dual consciousness into dueling consciousness. He moves at a high level through twentieth century American history. He locates his own story within that larger history, giving his own development as much of a critique as that of society. There is great power in his vulnerability.

Kendi systematically observes, unpacks and challenges us throughout the book. His take on the half-steps and quarter-steps taken to address racism is especially insightful. He disdains the term “microagression” and instead calls it what it is: racist abuse. He calls biological racists what the are: segregationists. He shares how ethnic labeling can fuel racist thought. He employs facts and science to debunk racist claims. For example, if you want to find high crime rates, unemployment and poverty are significantly greater contributors than race. And he notes the influence of behavioral racism in our thinking, practice and culture.

As the book progresses, building a more comprehensive understanding of how racism operates, Kendi zeroes in what is at stake – power. He shows how power – both in the political realm, which is traditional and well-publicized, as well in the sociological sense of cultural capital – has an intimate relationship with racism. He picks apart the threads of capitalism, especially how it can exploit others, to strengthen the argument. The organization of this line of thinking is reinforced through chapter titles, too: Space, Class, Gender, for example.

The key take away for me is that Kendi draws a clear distinction between all that it racist and all that is antiracist. He denies the existence of a middle ground. Reading the book is like taking the red pill in the Matrix. After reading it, if you reflect, you can’t unsee the racism all around us – and the choice is clear. We have to be antiracists.

David Potash

White Fragility – White Racism

Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, was published in 2018. After the murder of George Floyd, sales of the book jumped. Many of us, hunkering down in the pandemic, read widely to gain a better understanding of our racist history and the country’s deeply embedded racist practices. What could we learn and do to bring about greater justice? White Fragility was one of the volumes that seemed to be everywhere, and DiAngelo, a former tenured professor of multicultural education who now does diversity training, was prominent in the media.

DiAngelo is a sharp writer. Her message, that racism is woven deeply into structures, practices and our lives, is not radical. However, decades of work on racial issues gives her a comfort and skill set to write about it ways that others may not. The book’s underlying premises, that most white people have a very hard time when it comes to talking about, or even thinking about, race and the consequences of racism, is a truism. The tendency is to shut down, to defend, defer, point the other way – anything that can refute white complicity in systemic racism. DiAngelo takes this apart, showing how responses and actions can paper over issues or even make racist problems and practices more intractable. The term “white fragility” was crafted by her in a 2011 paper DiAngelo wrote for the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. It describes a rigidity, based on power and defensiveness, that takes place when a white person’s racism is questioned. What hovers over this book, and the larger enterprise of DiAngelo’s approach, is the question of how productive and honest it is to examine and work against racism through the lens of white fragility.

Reviews and summaries of White Fragility are ubiquitous. I wonder if the book has reached a stage where it is almost a trope – a volume regularly referenced and rarely read. If so, those that know the material well and do read it will most likely will find the book frustrating. It offers little new or different to explain how things have transpired, why we are in a society that is racist, or even how to advance policies that might lead to social justice and make for meaningful change. It is is far from a definitive account of racism, as DiAngelo readily acknowledges.

The strength of White Fragility rests on its extensive knowledge of how white liberals often react when challenged about race: denial, tears, and more denial. That’s a personal dynamic that DiAngelo witnesses and fights through regularly as a diversity coach. In and of itself, this point of resistance is very much worth examining. The phenomena offers a useful viewpoint as to why we have not made more progress towards social justice, even with people who voice inclusive sentiments, and why change at an individual level can prove to be very difficult.

That said, there is much more to think through here. Economic, political and societal power structures, centuries of exploitation, how certain kinds of capitalism and economic structures can reinforce racism – the evil tentacles of racism are systemic, pervasive, and complicated. DiAngelo knows this, too; she regularly references other authors and other works throughout White Fragility. It’s a strategy that makes sense to me and one that I recommend. Ongoing study is essential. Read widely, investigate thoroughly, and don’t rely on one author – especially one whose strength is diversity training – to explain racism.

David Potash

Racism & Tragedy, Still Unaddressed

In May of 1991, nearly thirty years ago – let that linger for a moment – the body of a 17-year old Black male was pulled from the St. Joseph river, adjacent to Lake Michigan. Eric McGinnis was a goofy prankster, a normal kid with a taste for fashion who hailed from the Black and poor Michigan town on the north side of the river, Benton Harbor. The south side of the river is home to St. Joseph, a wealthier white community. Following an investigation of questionable professionalism and frustrating ambiguity, the case was closed – without a cause, reason, or official explanation for McGinnis’s death.

Alex Kotlowitz, an award-winning journalist, author and writer on issues of race and justice, because obsessed with the case. He spent five years researching it, taking it apart and putting it back together. Kotlowitz assiduously dug deep into the racial make-up and history of the two towns. He found example after example of racism and a consistent lack of justice. He found gaps in communication, in empathy, and in understanding. He interviewed scores upon scores, trying to make sense of the tragedy. The resulting book, The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, A Dean, and America’s Dilemma, recounts Eric’s story and Kotlowitz’s research.

Nothing would be more gratifying than to recount that there is justice, a resolution, and closure. There is not. Eric’s death, like the death of so many others of color, remains an injustice, a tragedy that lingers and haunts. Kotlowitz’s research hammers home the impossibility of closure, too, when there is no case, no evidence, and limited attention. He lets us see the perceptions from both sides of the river, making certain that we appreciate how lives, meaning and any real shared sense of values is undermined by the racism woven through the towns’ histories. It is enraging and all too common. And that there was this level of reporting and attention all those years ago – without any meaningful action – renders the racist injustices of recent time all the more gutting.

Listening, documenting and telling the story is vital. Kotlowitz has continued to write, to make films, and to report. This is necessary. But if the last thirty years have taught us anything, it is that telling the story alone is insufficient. The pursuit of justice – meaningful justice – requires structure, commitment and action.

David Potash

A Dark Road, Indeed

Ma Jian’s 2014 novel, The Dark Road, is a haunting literary indictment of China’s one-child policy as described through the lives of one family. A painter turned award-winning writer, Jian is a creative and vocal critic of the Chinese state. He has such a compelling voice, in fact, that cannot live in the country safely. The the Chinese government has confiscated and destroyed his works. Now in London, Jian and his partner have a family of four children.

China’s one-child policy was enacted in the late 1970s after decades of a two-child rule. Designed to rein in population growth, the policy was about more than family planning. Formally it permitted families one child and should they have a second pregnancy, mandatory contraception, fines, forced abortions and sterilization. In practice, those with money and political connections were often able to by-pass the strictures. For those with less agency, like the family in The Dark Road, the lived experience was horrific and more encompassing.

Jian’s research for the novel took him to the countryside, where he posed as a reporter and asked everyday people how they coped with the government, the changing economy, and the impact of the one-child rule. The consequences were devastating. They collectively fold themselves into an omnipresent state that grinds the hope and humanity out of its citizens. Beyond the horrors of forced contraception, abortions, sterilizations and the systemic eradication of people’s interior life, the book offers a window on the caustic transactional society costs. If you cannot own your own body, what rights and hope are possible? Jiang gets this, and is able to describe it with a sense of immediacy – often with the dark humor that gives people the strength to shoulder on in the face of impossible conditions.

The hero of the novel is Meilin, a young and intelligent peasant woman without an education who marries Kongzi, a school teacher. They have a daughter, Nannan. Kongzi wants a male heir, though, and the resulting pregnancy leads the family to seek an alternative life on the Yangtze River. Jobs and family lost, the family struggles, with misfortune, some joys, and everyday life proving ever more difficult.

At the heart of the book is Meilin’s sense of agency, and her ownership – and lack, thereof – of her body and womb. She suffers mightily through the book. It reminded me of Zola, in naturalistic style, spelling out the contrast between what lives inside a person and what society allows. It is a terrible thing to contemplate, yet Jian’s storytelling skills carry us along to what we know will cannot be resolved positively.

David Potash