Book Reviews

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers'

April 23, 2012

It has become increasingly common in the U.S. to blame the least among us, as well as those who have suffered most from the Great Recession, for their own problems.

Consider the movement in some states to drug-test welfare recipients and those collecting unemployment benefits despite how little evidence there is that recipients use drugs. Or think a bit about the willingness of our political “leaders” to gut successful social programs to decrease deficits and pay for tax cuts given to the wealthiest Americans.

Then there’s the harsh attitude many have toward the nonnative children of undocumented or illegal immigrants, many of whom have been in the U.S. since they were infants and are Americans in all but the strictest legal sense. It’s not our fault you have a problem—it’s yours no matter how complex your circumstances, including those well beyond your ability to control.

Obviously, not everyone feels that way. The other extreme is to blame no one for anything. Neither is right.

And just about anyone can speak anecdotally about a family member, friend, or the guy down the street who won’t look for work or drinks too much or blames the world for his problems.

But the question Cain posed when God inquired about Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” apparently is one asked with more frequency in America’s highly charged and politicized landscape.

Thus it was America that came to mind as I finished Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.”

Published by Random House Inc., the book  is social journalism at its finest, an immersion over several years into the lives of people we will never know but whose daily struggles with abject poverty, governmental corruption, and cultural differences provide a gripping nonfiction narrative that mostly horrifies but on occasion inspires us.

Katherine Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist known primarily for writing about America's poor and disadvantaged. She writes in her book’s afterward:

“It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be—all those invisible individuals who every day find themselves faced with dilemmas not unlike the one Abdul confronted … one July afternoon when his life exploded. If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?”

In an interview about her book, Boo talks about the people she observed and how easy it is to underestimate not just their resolve but their intelligence despite their lack of education. She does not compare the disadvantaged and poor in the U.S. with the slum dwellers of Annawadi, but she says there are parallels in their stories and ones that can  be told in this country.

Mostly, she wants us to understand that the social and economic conditions plaguing millions of our fellow citizens are the result of complexities and dynamics that too often are misunderstood and for which there are no easy resolutions that fit nicely on a bumper sticker or in a political ad.

And she leaves us with this thought: “If we don’t really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we’re not going to grasp the potential that’s being lost.”

MARK CONDON is CUNA’s senior vice president of business and consumer publishing. Contact him at 608-231-4078.



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