Book 28 of my 2017 Reading Challenge
read from May 1 - 20
The Boys in the Bunkhouse by Dan Barry
Summary (via the book jacket)
It is a Dickensian tale from the heartland: a group of men with intellectual disability, all from Texas, living in a tired old schoolhouse in the tiny Iowa farm town of Atalissa and reporting before every dawn to eviscerate turkeys at a processing plant. In return, they receive food, lodging, and sixty-five dollars a month. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade, living in near servitude.
The people of Atalissa accepted and befriended the men - known as the "boys" - but failed to notice the hints of neglect, exploitation, and physical and emotional abuse. It was not until a few conscientious social workers, a local journalist, a one tenacious government lawyer came to their rescue that the men, though much older and grayer, found justice at last.
New York Times journalist Dan Barry reveals how these men remained all but forgotten for more than three decades, blending into the rural rhythm as occasional complaints about their living conditions went mostly ignored. Drawing on extensive personal interviews and reams of public records, Barry delves deep into their lives, summoning their memories and suffering, their tender moments of joy and persistent hopefulness - and, most of all, their endurance. He explores why this small town missed the telltale signs of exploitation, details how those responsible for such profound indifference justified their actions, and chronicles the lasting impact of a dramatic court case that has spurred advocates to push for just pay and improved working conditions for people with disabilities.
A luminous work of social justice, told with compassion and compelling detail, The Boys in the Bunkhouse is inspired storytelling and a clarion call for vigilance - an American tale that holds lasting meaning for all of us.
I had no intention of reading this book when I first heard about it. I'm from Iowa and have a personal and professional interest in people with special needs so I read everything the paper printed about Atalissa at the time it was discovered. I didn't see what a book would tell me that I hadn't already read. Then I heard the author Dan Barry speak at the Iowa City Book Festival and it was like he had read my mind. He said he didn't judge the people of Atalissa for not seeing the signs and he was cognizant of the fact that he was a New Yorker talking to Iowans about Iowa -- we all laughed at the absurdity. I also saw how emotional he was speaking about the "boys" so by the time he reached the end of his discussion and had the people involved in finally getting a little justice for them, who were sitting in the audience unbeknownst to us, stand up so we could applaud them, I was sold. I bought the book and had him sign it.
Like I said, I knew the story before reading the book but it angered me even more to read how it unfolded over many years. We have to care for our most vulnerable citizens and it's so frustrating when people don't do their job. It's also troubling in light of social services being cut; when not everybody is willing to go the extra mile to help and the ones that are are overworked and stretched so thin, people fall through the cracks.
I laughed at someone in the 1950's being named the "favored sweetheart of the Future Homemakers of America". I'm sure that was a high honor at the time!
A Few Quotes from the Book
"His shelter, his food, his paltry earnings - his every joy and sorrow - were controlled by a company whose very name invokes the damn bird that dictates his life: Henry's Turkey Service."
"The words of each witness were like paint strokes to an Iowa landscape unimaginable to Iowa itself."