§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter

I seem to be harder on this book than most readers, but the truth is that I found it very frustrating. Diane McWhorter, a journalist and regular contributor to the New York Times, is from Birmingham and furthermore her father and some of his friends and neighbors—some the fathers of Ms. McWhorter’s school friends—were “involved” in the story that she reports in this book. The Epilogue makes it clear—if it was not made clear before—that a big part of her motivation to write the book was her curiosity—and fear—to discover just how involved her father had been with those attempting to preserve separation of the races in Birmingham—at all costs.

There were several things that I did like about the book. (1) I liked the objective reporting, in incredible detail, which will make this book an important source for future historians. She traces the origins of Birmingham’s discontent in a far more sophisticated manner than most writers on the subject I’ve read. And she includes documented details and quotes. (2) I also liked the sheer accumulation detail that allowed the reader gradually to become more and more horrified at the real inhumanity that accompanied the white supremacist resistance to equal rights for Negroes. It was really a disgraceful period in American history and while I understand why large numbers of people didn't want their lives disrupted, I cannot even imagine their support of people who bombed buses and churches and private homes and targeted the opposition for assassination or murder.

What I didn’t like about Carry Me Home was that it was really two books—or should have been. One a history of the civil rights movement in Birmingham which culminated, in 1963, in attacks by the police on protesters—some school children--with police dogs and high pressure hoses, and in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church, killing four young girls. The other, the author’s search to discover how extensive was her own father’s involvement in the sometimes very violent opposition to racial integration, along with her probing to understand why. That more personal story would have made a better book. Writing both books at once was a mistake. I often ignored the personal stuff as a distraction to the main story and realized later that, taken all together, it amounted to what I would have found an interesting story on its own, without being coupled with an attempt to write an objective history too.

I also found the writer’s style very frustrating. Since it was essentially a book of discovery, the ideas and generalizations were few and far between and the reader was easily lost in the detail. The organic, discovery method she used would have worked for the personal story, but caused the reader interested in the history of the civil rights movement in Birmingham to end each chapter with no clear ideas of what she had just read.

The writing style, too, was faulty, though often brilliant by journalistic standards—full of specific, even compelling detail, with that wealth of direct quotes that future historians will appreciate. But reading an entire book of journalistic sentences, especially minus the generalizations one expects from good history is frustrating.

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