Kate’s Review: “Race Against Time”

52754197._sx318_sy475_Book: “Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era” by Jerry Mitchell

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: On June 21, 1964, more than twenty Klansmen murdered three civil rights workers. The killings would become known as the “Mississippi Burning” case and even though the killers’ identities, including the sheriff’s deputy, were an open secret, no one was charged with murder in the months and years that followed.

It took forty-one years before the mastermind was brought to trial and finally convicted for the three innocent lives he took. If there is one man who helped pave the way for justice, it is investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell.

In Race Against Time, Mitchell takes readers on the twisting, pulse-racing road that led to the reopening of four of the most infamous killings from the days of the civil rights movement, decades after the fact. His work played a central role in bringing killers to justice for the assassination of Medgar Evers, the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer, the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham and the Mississippi Burning case. His efforts have put four leading Klansmen behind bars, years after they thought they had gotten away with murder.

Review: Something that the United States hasn’t quite come to terms with is that our country is still a very deeply racist place. Our country was built on the backs of slaves, and the reverberations of that system are still being felt today, even though we don’t want to admit it. In the 1960s during the first Civil Rights Movement in this country, a number of people who were fighting for justice and rights for Black people were murdered for their values and actions, and for many years many of these cases went unsolved. Jerry Mitchell, a investigative journalist, was struck by the cold case of the Mississippi Burning Murders, in which three civil rights workers were murdered by upwards of twenty Klansmen, and were never given justice. That was the start of his career in investigating cold cases around murders during The Civil Rights Era. “Race Against Time” is his memoir about his work around said cases. And frankly, it’s necessary reading for any true crime fans, or anyone interested in justice for those who died for Civil Rights.

As one can imagine, “Race Against Time” is intense, dark, and harrowing. Mitchell pursues leads in a few notorious, recently solved cases of murders of people that Klan members killed to intimidate and silence those who were fighting for racial justice. Mitchell made deep connections to the family members left behind, and as he devotes each section of the book to these cases, you see how he earned the trust of those people, as well as doggedly pursued the probably perpetrators. His writing style is what you’d expect for a seasoned and well respected reporter, and his narrative flows in a very consumable way. Along with that, he really knows how to convey the pain and hope of the family members, and the fear and tension he was feeling when he did meet with suspects and Klansmen, having to keep his cool as they not only say horrifically racist things, but also brag about violence. I really appreciated seeing all of the work that he did, as well as his takes on how the court cases went once they did eventually get to court, decades after the fact. The cases he covers I mostly knew, but seeing this perspective he lays out as opposed to the ones in American History books I had encountered in my past was fresh and insightful. He doesn’t mince words about the evil of white supremacy and how it drives The Klan, and it made for a difficult, but important read.

What struck me the most as I was reading this book is that while this is arguably Jerry Mitchell’s memoir on his work in investigative journalism regarding the murders of Civil Rights figures, it is decidedly centered on the victims and their families as opposed to him. Sure, he talks about the various things he had to do, like putting himself in harms way by interviewing Klansmen and then exposing them. Or talking about the fears that his family had during some of this time. But it always reads as him putting the victims and those they left behind first, and delving into their backgrounds, their stories, and their truths. While I definitely worried about Mitchell on some of his assignments, I was mostly hoping for the best outcomes possible for people like Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, and the Four Little Girls of the 16th Street Church bombing. Mitchell devotes time and pages to all of their stories, and really peels back the way that bigotry and racism hindered justice for so long, as well as exposing the violent racists who almost got away with murder. But it never feels like he’s patting himself on the back or tooting his own horn, and is also quick to point out that there are SO MANY cases that have gone without justice over the years. Mitchell is here to remind us that justice is far from done, and that as a country we still have a long way to go when it comes to righting the wrongs of our racist past and present.

“Race Against Time” is necessary reading when it comes to The Civil Rights Movement, and also a great case study in the importance of investigation journalism. There is still work to do, folks, and people like Mitchell can show us effective ways to do it.

Rating 8: A fascinating and harrowing memoir that centers the victims instead of the author, “Race Against Time” is a must read for those who seek justice against white supremacy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Race Against Time” is included on the Goodreads lists “True Crime on Tap”, and “White Power, Terrorism, White Supremacy, and White Nationalist Movements in the United States (nonfiction)”.

Find “Race Against Time” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Hell in the Heartland”

52218496Book: “Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Case of Two Missing Girls” by Jax Miller

Publishing Info: Berkley, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley

Book Description: The stranger-than-fiction cold case from rural Oklahoma that has stumped authorities for two decades, concerning the disappearance of two teenage girls and the much larger mystery of murder, police cover-up, and an unimaginable truth…

On December 30, 1999, in rural Oklahoma, sixteen-year-old Ashley Freeman and her best friend, Lauria Bible, were having a sleepover. The next morning, the Freeman family trailer was in flames and both girls were missing.

While rumors of drug debts, revenge, and police collusion abounded in the years that followed, the case remained unsolved and the girls were never found.

In 2015, crime writer Jax Miller–who had been haunted by the case–decided to travel to Oklahoma to find out what really happened on that winter night in 1999, and why the story was still simmering more than fifteen years later. What she found was more than she could have ever bargained for: jaw-dropping levels of police negligence and corruption, entire communities ravaged by methamphetamine addiction, and a series of interconnected murders with an ominously familiar pattern.

These forgotten towns were wild, lawless, and home to some very dark secrets.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

For someone who enjoys a good true crime podcast and likes to spend time on the Reddit sub “Unresolved Mysteries”, I am always taken in by the story of a cold case, murder, or strange mystery that I have never heard of before. So when I was browsing NetGalley’s list of upcoming true crime books, “Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Cse of Two Missing Girls” by Jax Miller caught my attention. The case has all the components of an “Unsolved Mysteries” episode. You have two missing teenagers in rural Oklahoma, Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible. Lauria was sleeping over at Ashley’s trailer home, but early the next morning it was found burning. First responders and police found the body of Ashley’s mother, and later her father’s body was also found. But there was no sign of Ashley or Lauria, and they haven’t been seen ever since. I thought that it would be a tantalizing and strange story, and it certainly is. But Miller takes it even further, and decides to paint a broader picture than just a tale about two missing teens. We also get a study of police negligence, small town criminality, and the way that a community like this has fallen on hard times, and how that has broad repercussions.

“Hell in the Heartland” is for the most part a true crime mystery, and the case is a head scratcher to be sure. There are two prevailing theories about what may have happened to Ashley and Lauria, and it seems to be split along family lines as to whom those theories appeal to. Miller gives due diligence to both theories, and while I think that probability falls far more on the side of one, I liked that in this book we got pretty strong arguments for both. The first, subscribed to by Ashley’s surviving family members, is that the local enforcement officials were trying to cover up some wrong doing. After all, Ashley’s brother Shane had been shot and killed by an officer not too long before Ashley disappeared and her parents were murdered. The officer claimed that he had drawn a gun, but the Freemans never believed it. The circumstances were suspicious, and the way that the police bungled a few things about the investigation into the Freeman murders and missing girls was absolutely reckless at best, and damning at worst. I have no problem believing that a department feeling sore about unwanted attention because of a grieving family wanting justice would mishandle a case regarding said family, so it’s not really a stretch to think that maybe the police could be capable of something so terrible. The other theory is that local meth kingpins were the ones that committed this crime, as their proximity and potential involvement with the Freeman family would give motive, means, and opportunity. As the book goes on this seems to be a more likely scenario, especially given recent arrests and evidence that ties them to the girls. But all that said, Miller still wants to present all of the evidence and to give a very clear picture of both possibilities, as at the end of the day we still don’t know where Ashley and Lauria are, even if we think we know what happened to them. While there may be an official ‘end’ in terms of how our legal system is seeing it, Miller makes it very clear to the reader that there is no closure and there is no real justice, because Ashley and Lauria never came home in one way or another. And for Lauria’s parents especially, that isn’t justice.

But beyond the case itself, “Hell in the Heartland” paints a very grim and sad picture about the rural community that Ashley and Lauria were living in when they disappeared. From Ashley’s brother Shane dying at the hands of a police officer with no repercussions, to Ashely’s grandparents very clear mental health issues that aren’t being addressed, to poverty in general and how the meth trade takes root within it, we see that Ashley and Lauria’s kidnapping, and the murder of the Freemans, wasn’t within a vacuum. Hell, the fact that one of the big drug lords was a known violent lunatic, with assault, domestic violence, and other horrible things being is M.O., and no one could do anything but stay out of his way, says volumes. Violence and secrets are more common than we may think in small towns like this, and to me that was one of the harder things to swallow about this story.

“Hell in the Heartland” is a story that you may not know about even if you’re a true crime aficionado, but after reading this book you’ll want to know more. Jax Miller has really shined a light on a case that hasn’t really left Oklahoma, and hopefully it will have a wide enough reach that one day Ashley and Lauria will be brought home.

Rating 7: A sad and strange cold case that has no official end, “Hell in the Heartland” takes a look at the story of two missing girls, and some very sad facts and dangers about the community they lived in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Hell in the Heartland” is new and not included on any Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Poverty in the USA”, and “Corruption in High Places”.

Find “Hell in the Heartland” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Cold Vanish”

48717769Book: “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands” by Jon Billman

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, July 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: For readers of Jon Krakauer and Douglas Preston, the critically acclaimed author and journalist Jon Billman’s fascinating, in-depth look at people who vanish in the wilderness without a trace and those eccentric, determined characters who try to find them.

These are the stories that defy conventional logic. The proverbial vanished without a trace incidences, which happen a lot more (and a lot closer to your backyard) than almost anyone thinks. These are the missing whose situations are the hardest on loved ones left behind. The cases that are an embarrassment for park superintendents, rangers and law enforcement charged with Search & Rescue. The ones that baffle the volunteers who comb the mountains, woods and badlands. The stories that should give you pause every time you venture outdoors.

Through Jacob Gray’s disappearance in Olympic National Park, and his father Randy Gray who left his life to search for him, we will learn about what happens when someone goes missing. Braided around the core will be the stories of the characters who fill the vacuum created by a vanished human being. We’ll meet eccentric bloodhound-handler Duff and R.C., his flagship purebred, who began trailing with the family dog after his brother vanished in the San Gabriel Mountains. And there’s Michael Neiger North America’s foremost backcountry Search & Rescue expert and self-described “bushman” obsessed with missing persons. And top researcher of persons missing on public wildlands Ex-San Jose, California detective David Paulides who is also one of the world’s foremost Bigfoot researchers.

It’s a tricky thing to write about missing persons because the story is the absence of someone. A void. The person at the heart of the story is thinner than a smoke ring, invisible as someone else’s memory. The bones you dig up are most often metaphorical. While much of the book will embrace memory and faulty memory — history — The Cold Vanish is at its core a story of now and tomorrow. Someone will vanish in the wild tomorrow. These are the people who will go looking.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

I love National Parks. I’m not really an outdoorsy person in the sense that I don’t like camping, but I do love hiking, I do love nature, and I do love epic landscapes. And National Parks give me all of that and more! While it’s hard to pick a favorite, I will say that my most recent National Park trip, Rocky Mountain National Park last summer, was beautiful and breathtaking. But one of the weird/surreal moments during our trip was standing at the top of a trail head and seeing a Missing Person poster for a man who had disappeared in the park earlier in the spring. It was a grim reminder that while the National Parks are treasures and wonderful opportunities for education and exploration, they are not without their dangers. Enter “The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands” by Jon Billman, a book I had been looking forward to ever since I read his Outside Magazine article that inspired it. Missing people in public lands is scary, guys. And Billman does a great job of demonstrating why while personalizing some of the missing, and how in some cases they vanished with nary a trace.

Billman’s main focus is on the disappearance of Jacob Gray, who disappeared after going for a bike ride in Olympic National Park. Jacob had been showing signs of mental illness and depression, but his family members don’t believe that he was suicidal. His bike and stuff was found but he never was. Billman follows the family members, especially father Randy, as they continue the search in the park well beyond the initial date missing. It feels a little voyeuristic, but at the same time I did like that we got to see the fallout for the family members after the searches, or lack thereof (more on that in a moment) stopped and it was left up to family and friends to go on. The search takes Randy and in turn Billman far and away from the park, and they have to parse through conspiracy theories, rumors of serial killers, and even Bigfoot sightings in hopes of finding a lead. It’s emotional and very sad, but also quite compelling to see how these searches can go. There are other stories dropped in as well, such as a woman who went missing while on a run (who may have been killed by her husband… or maybe it was a serial killer who had means and opportunity), another hiker who went missing in Olympic National Park around the same time that Jacob did, and a hiker who disappeared while on a trail in Mesa Verde. It’s strange and distressing, but Billman is sympathetic and respectful in his accounts. On top of that we also get a look into cadaver dogs and how they’re trained, various histories of some of the settings, and some deep dives into Bigfoot theory. So many Bigfoot theories.

For me the most interesting aspect of this book was not so much about the missing person cases themselves (though some are admittedly fascinating as hell), but how the bureaucracy when it comes to doing official searches gets so gunked up when people disappear on public lands like this. Billman talked about this in his article, but it’s no less frustrating when he talks about the issues specifically in Jacob’s case. For example, there was question as to whether he disappeared in the park itself, or if he crossed the river and the disappeared in the Olympic National Forest. Both places wanted to shirk the duty onto the other, and then there was a large delay in getting any official search parties on the ground when time is of the essence. The unclear jurisdiction issues are one of many issues. Another one that confounded me was that there was no database of missing people in various public lands and parks. One would think that you’d want to have records of this, but it seems the government is barely keeping on top of the number of people missing, much less who they are and other pertinent info. It just kind of reiterates how messed up our government can be in some ways, and it doesn’t make me want to do any heavy duty hiking or camping in remote areas any time soon if it’s to be done on public land. I’ll stick to the paved trails, thanks.

Overall, “The Cold Vanish” is fascinating and eerie, and digs a little deeper than a typical ‘missing persons’ themed book.

Rating 8: A look at missing people and the mysteries of so called ‘conquered’ wilderness, “The Cold Vanish” is strange, bittersweet, and compelling.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cold Vanish” isn’t on many specific Goodreads lists as of yet. But if you liked “Into the Wild” or other books about disappearing into the wilderness, this would be for you.

Find “The Cold Vanish” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Know My Name”

50196744._sx318_sy475_Book: “Know My Name: A Memoir” by Chanel Miller

Publishing Info: Viking, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: She was known to the world as Emily Doe when she stunned millions with a letter. Brock Turner had been sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting her on Stanford’s campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral–viewed by eleven million people within four days, it was translated globally and read on the floor of Congress; it inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case. Thousands wrote to say that she had given them the courage to share their own experiences of assault for the first time.

Now she reclaims her identity to tell her story of trauma, transcendence, and the power of words. It was the perfect case, in many ways–there were eyewitnesses, Turner ran away, physical evidence was immediately secured. But her struggles with isolation and shame during the aftermath and the trial reveal the oppression victims face in even the best-case scenarios. Her story illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators, indicts a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, and, ultimately, shines with the courage required to move through suffering and live a full and beautiful life.

Know My Name will forever transform the way we think about sexual assault, challenging our beliefs about what is acceptable and speaking truth to the tumultuous reality of healing. It also introduces readers to an extraordinary writer, one whose words have already changed our world. Entwining pain, resilience, and humor, this memoir will stand as a modern classic.

Review: Honestly, when I started “Know My Name” by Chanel Miller, I realized that while I wanted to review it, I had a conundrum in front of me. How do you fully review such a deeply personal memoir about a very personal event in someone else’s life? For those who may be unfamiliar with the name Chanel Miller, perhaps you know the name Emily Doe, the woman that Brock Turner raped, and then was only sentenced to six months in jail (he eventually only served three, by the way). His sentence set off a firestorm across the world, and was one of the many focuses on the disparities in our justice system when it comes to class, race, gender, and sexual assault. I really wanted to read and review this book because Miller’s story is so important. But again… how does one review a story such as this?

Chanel Miller has such a powerful and all consuming writing style, and her story focuses on the night she was raped and what followed afterwards, from having to process her trauma, having to go to court, and having to be dragged and scrutinized in the public spotlight, even if she was technically anonymous. She is unflinching and candid about what happened the night that Turner assaulted her and how it was in the days afterwards, and while those moments are especially hard to read in this book Miller does such a great job of really laying everything on the table. She isn’t afraid to put herself completely out there, and her honesty about what her experience was like really hits the reader in the heart. Her writing style is beautiful, and really gets her sadness, anger, incredulity, and fortitude across. You saw glimpses of this in her victim impact statement that went viral shortly after it was made public, but now seeing it with the complete context of her life and experience just shows how very talented she is as a writer.

She also really emphasizes what it is like to be a victim of a high profile sexual assault case, and how trying and awful it can be. From having to see her actions before the assault dissected and laid out in the open, to having people imply that she asked for it because of said actions, to seeing how Brock Turner’s potential was held in higher regard than her experience of being victimized by him, Miller shows how hard it is for victims to come forward. The entitlement of Turner and the way that the judge sentenced him based on his potential as a wealthy white man is infuriating, and Miller gets to address these issues with her own words. And in the process she shows the world the story that a lot of people may not think about when a man with ‘high potential’ or high profile is outed as a predator: the story of a victim who will have to live with a traumatic event for the rest of their life, and how the fallout is going to effect them. Miller emphasizes how society favors protecting men like Turner at the expense of victims like her, and while we may know that, it doesn’t hurt any less to have it reaffirmed.

I highly recommend “Know My Name”. It is going to be a hard read, and it’s going to probably hurt, but it’s an important story, and Chanel Miller deserves to have her truth amplified.

Rating 9: A very personal, powerful, and beautifully written memoir.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Know My Name: A Memoir” is included on the Goodreads lists “Breaking The Silence: Talking About Violence Against Women”, and “ATY 2020 – Books Related to News Stories”.

Find “Know My Name: A Memoir” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Last Book on the Left”

43261154._sx318_Book: “The Last Book on the Left: Stories of Murder and Mayhem from History’s Most Notorious Serial Killers” by Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski

Publishing Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley, and I own it!

Book Description: An equal parts haunting and hilarious deep-dive review of history’s most notorious and cold-blooded serial killers, from the creators of the award-winning Last Podcast on the Left

Since its first show in 2010, The Last Podcast on the Left has barreled headlong into all things horror, as hosts Henry Zebrowski, Ben Kissel, and Marcus Parks cover subjects spanning Jeffrey Dahmer, werewolves, Jonestown, and supernatural phenomena. Deeply researched but with a morbidly humorous bent, the podcast has earned a dedicated and aptly cultlike following for its unique take on all things macabre.

In their first book, the guys take a deep dive into history’s most infamous serial killers, from Ted Bundy to John Wayne Gacy, exploring their origin stories, haunting habits, and perverse predilections. Featuring newly developed content alongside updated fan favorites, each profile is an exhaustive examination of the darker side of human existence. With appropriately creepy four-color illustrations throughout and a gift-worthy paper over board format, The Last Book on the Left will satisfy the bloodlust of readers everywhere.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book.

I first discovered the podcast “The Last Podcast on the Left” in early 2018. I had just left my job, I was feeling a little aimless and sad (not to mention a bit taken advantage of), and was looking for any kind of distraction. It’s not too hyperbolic to say that hosts Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski brought me the most joy I had felt since leaving that position. Not only were they very funny, the research and presentation of stories about serial killers, aliens, supernatural incidents, and other tales of the macabre was phenomenal. So I was, of course, overjoyed when they announced that they were going to release a book. And when I was approved to get an eARC from NetGalley? I could have exploded from excitement.

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I actually screamed. (source)

Now I did have my reservations. After all, while I mostly enjoyed the other podcast based book that made a splash in the book community, I was a little nervous that this would be similar in that it just wouldn’t capture the essence of the source content. Let’s be real, “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered” is a fun book, but it’s not true crime, which is the draw of the podcast to begin with. But I was foolish to doubt Parks, Zebrowski, and Kissel. “The Last Book on the Left” is everything I wanted it to be and more.

As I vaguely mentioned before, one of the things that I love the most about the podcast is that Marcus Parks, the head researcher for the show, does a fantastic job of researching and presenting the topics that they cover in each episode. And he brings the same zeal and drive to the book. This book covers a number of notorious serial killers, from Ted Bundy to BTK to Son of Sam and many more. While I’m familiar with a lot of the cases in this book, I still found myself learning new information because of the deep dives that Parks does. I also appreciated that the book made the note that while all of their subjects have been covered on the podcast, they have tried to bring new information and content to the book. How easy would it have been to do an easy copy paste job from past scripts and witty rapport (looking at you, “Lore” podcast!)? And yet Parks, Kissel, and Zebrowski want to do their very  best for their fans and for the people reading the book, and refuse to cut corners, and because of that the reading is wholly original and fresh. Throw in some really fun and darkly funny graphics and imagery, and you have a fun and informational reading experience!

And if that wasn’t enough, “The Last Book on the Left” also achieves what I thought would be the unachievable: they manage to translate the podcast format to the page without being clunky or untrue to their natures. The premise of the podcast is that Parks will tell the stories, and Kissel and Zebrowski will make commentary and banter throughout the narrative. I figured that it was going to be straight information, which was completely okay in my book. But then “The Last Book on the Left” went and surprised me. Using graphics and color coded speech bubbles, they manage to put the witty and dark humored Kissel and Zebrowski commentary throughout the narrative, using their likenesses with varying facial expressions depending on the tone of the comment. It works, it’s creative, and it’s ingenious. I found myself laughing out loud probably as much as I do during each podcast episode, and was thrilled to see that they managed to translate their wicked charm to book form.

Now I do have to admit that I’m probably wholeheartedly biased when it comes to “The Last Book on the Left”. I was pretty much guaranteed to love this book given how much I love the podcast and it’s creators. So I’m going to try to level with everyone here for a moment. Do I think that this book is going to be for anyone and everyone? Probably not. If you aren’t into true crime it’s really not for you, and I am the first to admit and acknowledge that the comedy aspects of the podcast are not going to sit well with everyone. The book tones it back a lot, but it’s still not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. That said, as a fan of the show, I loved it. And I do think that the impeccable true crime content and research is God tier.

I loved, LOVED “The Last Book on the Left”. It was everything I hoped it would be, and it’s a true testament to the talent that these three hosts have.

Rating 10: “The Last Book on the Left” is a well researched and presented overview of a number of notorious serial killers, and manages to capture the banter and charm of the podcast and put it to the page. Well worth the wait. Hail yourselves, fellas!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Book on the Left” is included on the Goodreads list “Books of Podcasts”, and I think it would fit in on “Best True Crime”.

Find “The Last Book on the Left” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Third Rainbow Girl”

37655694Book: “The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia” by Emma Copley Eisenberg

Publishing Info: Hachette Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In the afternoon or early evening of June 25, 1980, two young women, Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero, were killed in an isolated clearing in rural Pocahontas County West Virginia. They were hitchhiking to an outdoor peace festival known as the Rainbow Gathering, but never arrived. Their killings have been called “The Rainbow Murders.”

For thirteen years, no one was prosecuted, though suspicion was cast on a succession of local men. In 1993, the state of West Virginia convicted a local farmer named Jacob Beard and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Later, it emerged that a convicted serial killer and diagnosed schizophrenic named Joseph Paul Franklin had also confessed. With the passage of time, as the truth behind the Rainbow killings seemed to slip away, its toll on this Appalachian community became more concrete—the unsolved murders were a trauma, experienced on a community scale.

Emma Copley Eisenberg spent five years re-investigating these brutal acts, which once captured the national media’s imagination, only to fall into obscurity. A one-time New Yorker who came to live in Pocahontas Country, Eisenberg shows how that crime, a mysterious act of violence against a pair of middle-class outsiders, came to loom over several generations of struggling Appalachians, many of them
laborers who earned a living farming, hauling timber, cutting locust posts, or baling hay—and the investigators and lawyers for whom the case became a white whale.

Part “Serial”-like investigation, part Joan Didion-like meditation, the book follows the threads of this crime through the history of West Virginia, the Back-to-the-Land movement, and the complex reality contemporary Appalachia, forming a searing portrait of America and its divisions of gender and class, and its violence.

Review: I’ve mentioned this in the past about how my mother likes to send me book reviews from the New York Times or the Washington Post or what have you if she thinks that the book will be of interest to me. Such themes have included cults, murder, and a first scene which involved two men hooking up in a Bulgarian public restroom. Suffice to say, I’m always intrigued when a new review shows up in my inbox. So when she sent an article about “The Third Rainbow Girl” by Emma Copley Eisenberg, I knew that it was bound to be a spot on recommendation. And not only was it spot on, it was about a true crime cold case that I had never heard of until that moment! Mom comes through once again with the creepy and salacious reads!

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Who knows what kind of story will arrive in my inbox next? (source)

“The Third Rainbow Girl” is a dual narrative. One is the examination and dissection of a cold case murder from 1980 in which two women were found murdered in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and the woman who was their friend and narrowly missed being murdered herself. The other is a personal memoir by Eisenberg, who spent a few formative years working in Pocahontas county decades after the fact. These two narratives come together to paint a portrait of the community, the culture, and the various hardships and struggles the people have, as well as how the murders and the fallout affected those who live there. But they also tell the story of women trying to find their freedom in different ways, and how misogyny and violence can have a hefty price. The story of Nancy Santomero and Vicki Durian is a familiar one of women who meet a violent end, but the way that Eisenberg slowly peels back the layers of their story is haunting and depressing in how incomplete it feels, even if it’s kind of solved. From thrown out charges to an overturned conviction to the confession from notorious serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin (that ultimately was never pursued as charges because he was already on death row for two other murders), Santomero and Durian’s case has been a mystery, even if the case is technically closed. And the idea of the ‘hillbilly monster’ trope has been one that haunted it from the get go, as everyone in town was sure that it was someone local who was taking aggression out on the ‘hippie’ girls. And yet, if Franklin is to be believed, he was an outsider and certainly not the monster we’ve come to associate with pop culture depictions of Appalaichian predators, though far more dangerous than some “Deliverance” backwoods hick. For whatever reason, be it misogyny, or two victims who didn’t fit the ‘missing pretty white woman’ mold to a t (as while they were both white, neither Santomero nor Durian were seen as ‘pretty’ by media frenzy standards, and as hippie chicks had certain stigmas around them), or a community that had turned on itself, this murder is still incomplete, and still haunts Pocahontas County.

The other narrative, that of Eisenberg’s own experiences in Pocahontas County while working for VISTA, gives a little more context to the culture of the area, though it sometimes treads into ‘this could have been ME!’ territory. The title of the book refers to the Third Rainbow Girl, a woman named Elizabeth Johndrow who had been friends with Durian and Santomero but narrowly missed becoming a victim due to timing and sheer luck. You can see that Eisenberg relates to Johndrow, and on other levels Durian and Santomero, because of the need to explore the world and to find herself when she was young and living in the area, without knowing what would come of that need for adventuring. She experienced first hand the highest highs of living in Pocahontas County, and also saw the way that women are both taught to be tough while being cut down because of circumstance and the misogyny that is rampant in that culture, as it is in other American cultures, though Appalachia gets more scrutiny than some supposedly more progressive parts of the country. I thought that the memoir section of this book, along with the history lessons, definitely made me approach the subject matter with more compassion and a more open mind that I would have had it not been there. But that said, I did find some of the comparisons made between her life and the victims lives, even if not overtly, to feel a little self centered. Because of this, I wasn’t as connected to this part of the story, and wanted to get back to the case at hand as it unfolded and shifted.

Overall, “The Third Rainbow Girl” is a unique take on the true crime genre, and it examined themes that many true crime books don’t. I think that if you are looking for straight true crime it may not be the best fit, but if you want a little reflection and contextualization, you should definitely give it a whirl.

Rating 7: A cohesive and deep dive into a cold case that I was unfamiliar with, and while I liked the background provided to West Virginia, the memoir aspect felt a little shoehorned in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Third Rainbow Girl” is included on the Goodreads list “True Crime by Women and POC”.

Find “The Third Rainbow Girl” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Scarred”

49895887._sx318_sy475_Book: “Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, The Cult That Bound My Life” by Sarah Edmondson and Kristine Gasbarre

Publishing Info: Chronicle Prism, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In 2005, Sarah Edmondson was a young actress getting her start in Vancouver and hungry for purpose. When NXIVM, a personal and professional development company, promised to provide the tools and insight to reach her potential and make an impact, Sarah was intrigued. She would go on to become one of the cult’s most faithful (and effective) devotees. Over her twelve-year tenure, Sarah enrolled over 2,000 people and operated her own NXIVM center in Vancouver.

Of course, things were not what they seemed. As Sarah progressed up NXIVM’s “Stripe Path,” questions kept coming up about the organization’s rules and practices. Why did the organization prevent members from asking questions? Why did those who did ask questions promptly leave or disappear? These questions came to a head in 2017 when Sarah accepted an invitation from her best friend, Lauren Salzman, to join DOS, a “secret sisterhood” within NXIVM and headed to the headquarters in Albany for the initiation ceremony. Thanks to Sarah’s fearlessness as she put her life on the line, that ceremony would mark the beginning of the end of NXIVM.

In this tell-all memoir, complete with personal photographs, Sarah shares her true story from the moment she takes her first NXIVM seminar, revealing in-depth details of her time as a member, including what happened on that fateful night in Albany, and her harrowing fight to get out, help others, and heal. This is also a true story about abuses of power, the role female friendships play in cults, and how sometimes the search to be “better” can override everything else.

Review: While I didn’t watch the teen show “Smallville” on a regular basis, I watched it enough to know that I enjoyed the character of Chloe Sullivan, Clark’s BFF and fellow student journalist. Part of the charm was because of Allison Mack, who played Chloe with quirkiness and a relatable awkward bent that I really connected with back in the day. Serena watched the show regularly, however, as anything Superman is up her alley. So you know that we were texting each other like mad the night the news broke that Mack had been arrested for sex trafficking within the cult NXIVM.

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Me at the taco restaurant that night as we dished on the downfall of Chloe Sullivan. (source)

I had never heard of NXIVM, the multi level marketing organization turned psychologically and physically abusive cult, but once this news broke I wanted to know EVERYTHING. So a podcast and a lot of article perusing later, I felt like I had learned a lot about the group and Keith Raniere, its creator, and how an actress like Mack could become a right hand confidant to a charismatic sociopath. But when I found out that Sarah Edmondson, a former NXIVM member who exposed the bizarre and disturbing ‘branding’ practices NXIVM performed on a number of women, had written a memoir about her time in the cult, I was deeply, DEEPLY interested.

Edmondson is one of the key players in the exposure of NXIVM, Raniere, Mack, and numerous others who had been brought down after the smoke cleared. A former member whose association with NXIVM was more than ten years, Edmondson finally realized how deep in she was when she found herself branded with Raniere’s and Mack’s initials. Until that point Edmondson had been, mostly, all in, but that isn’t to say that she was without some doubts before then. This memoir gives us an honest insight into her thought process while she was still with the organization and hoping to garner favor with the higher ups, and has some true introspection about why she fell in so deep and stayed so long. Her honesty and candor is definitely appreciated, and it never feels like she tries to completely deflect her own culpability and blame in regards to the role that she played. True, she emphasizes that she too was manipulated into manipulating others, which sometimes feels like a bit of a ‘I’m sorry but it’s not totally my fault’ strategy, but that said given the psychological manipulation this group deals in, I don’t doubt the manipulation at play. And besides, it does seem like she is trying to make amends by getting this story out there, and by doing her best to expose the group before the spotlight really shone down on Raniere, Mack, et al. I don’t think I can pass judgement on her at the end of the day, but others may feel differently, and that’s okay too.

In terms of NXIVM itself, as I definitely read this in part to learn some of the ins and outs of the group beyond the knowledge I already had, I feel that Edmondson (and co-author Kristine Gasbarre) set up the narrative in an effective way, and showed the way that the group can pull people in slowly and surely. One can definitely see the appeal of this multi-level marketing scheme to those who are feeling vulnerable and insecure, and how it can slowly build and build until said people are in way over their heads and allowing themselves to be branded or to be used in sexual coercion plots. It’s deeply fascinating, and terrifying, stuff. I would suggest that if you want a larger deep dive, check out the podcast “Uncovered: Escaping NXIVM”. Edmondson is not only a consultant on that, it also has a broader scope about the group as a whole, and will probably give you more comprehensive information than this memoir does.

All in all, “Scarred” is upsetting and hard to put down. Edmondson gets to tell her story on her own terms, and is another reminder about the dangers of group think and a cult of personality.

Rating 7: A disturbing and personal memoir from a former member of a cult, “Scarred” sheds some insight into NXIVM and continues to try to make amends.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scarred” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of now, but it is included on “Canadian NonFiction- Fall 2019”, and I think it would fit in on “People Who Have Left Cults or Religious Fundamentalism (Memoirs and Biographies)”.

Find “Scarred” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Monster, She Wrote”

44594661Book: “Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction” by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson

Publishing Info: Quirk Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Weird fiction wouldn’t exist without the women who created it. Meet the female authors who defied convention to craft some of literature’s strangest tales. And find out why their own stories are equally intriguing.

Everyone knows about Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein; but have you heard of Margaret Cavendish, who wrote a science-fiction epic 150 years earlier? Have you read the psychological hauntings of Violet Paget, who was openly involved in long-term romantic relationships with women in the Victorian era? Or the stories of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, whose writing influenced H.P. Lovecraft? Monster, She Wrote shares the stories of women past and present who invented horror, speculative, and weird fiction and made it great. You’ll meet celebrated icons (Ann Radcliffe, V.C. Andrews), forgotten wordsmiths (Eli Coltor, Ruby Jean Jensen), and today’s vanguard (Helen Oyeyemi). And each profile includes a curated reading list so you can seek out the spine-chilling tales that interest you the most.

Review: Even though horror is hands down my favorite literary genre (or genre of any kind of consumable media), that doesn’t exclude it from my general lack of experience with ‘the classics’. Sure, I’ve read books like “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, and “The Turn of the Screw”, but in general I have kept my horror experiences fairly solidly in the 20th century and beyond. On top of that, a lot of what I’ve read has been fairly male dominated. So when I saw that “Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction” was a book that was coming out, I decided that I needed to educate myself about horror classics, specifically those written by women, and to expand my ‘to-read’ list to fit the recommendations made within this book.

And boy are there many recommendations! “Monster, She Wrote” gives us a list of female authors of horror and speculative fiction, gives a comprehensive but succinct biography of each of them, and explains the importance and significance of a few of their works, or at the very least gives us the plot and lets us suss out the significance for ourselves. Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson are sure to cast a wide net throughout the genres, covering a number of different authors and subgenres within the genres. Each section is divided based on the subgenres, which I liked because it made is so I could give extra focus on the kinds of stories that really tickle my fancy and to hone in on the authors that perfected the stories. While they, of course, cover some of the heavy hitters like Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson, they also are sure to bring in diverse perspectives, including women like Toni Morrison and Helen Oyeymi, so that the texts discussed and recommended aren’t incredibly white in nature (side note, I loved that “Beloved” was included in this book and Morrison by association. It’s one of my favorite books and at it’s heart it is, indeed, a very effective ghost story). I also got to learn about a number of authors who I had either only heard of in passing, or had never heard of, and because of this I now have added people like Edith Wharton and Anne Radcliffe to my list of ‘must reads’, as well as modern voices like Oyeymi (I will be talking to my Mom so I can borrow her copy of “Boy, Snow, Bird”). Finally, at the end of each biography we get a handy dandy list of books to try out, split into three categories, labeled ‘Not To Be Missed’, ‘Also Try’, and ‘Related Work’. These suggestions are stories by the authors themselves, as well as other stories and tales by different people whose themes are either direct call backs or similar in tone. How great to have a curated and well put together list of suggestions!

It’s also important to note that throughout all of these biographies and personal histories of these women authors, there are hints and senses of the difficulties and obstacles that many of them faced or face as women living at their respective times in their respective societies. These hardships could be due to gender, class, or race, and Kröger and Anderson, while never focusing on it, absolutely acknowledge it and make the reader realize that women voices in the genre have been very important and formative, and yet have been downplayed or, in some cases, almost forgotten (there were a few instances in which an author’s ‘Not To Be Missed’ work was noted as being out of print. How incredibly upsetting).

Any horror or speculative fiction fan ought to do themselves a favor and read “Monster, She Wrote”. You will undoubtedly get some new reading ideas, or gain new appreciation for authors you already love, or authors you have yet to discover.

Rating 8: And informative and expansive history of significant female voices in horror and speculative fiction, “Monster, She Wrote” has a lot of reading ideas and a lot of fun and interesting facts about an array of authors.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Monster, She Wrote” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of now (why?), but it is included on “Best Books About Genre Fiction”.

Find “Monster, She Wrote” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “American Fire”

32191677Book: “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse

Publishing Info: Liveright, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: Audible

Book Description: Shocked by a five-month arson spree that left rural Virginia reeling, Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse drove down to Accomack County to cover the trial of Charlie Smith, who pled guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But Charlie wasn’t lighting fires alone: he had an accomplice, his girlfriend Tonya Bundick. Through her depiction of the dangerous shift that happened in their passionate relationship, Hesse brilliantly brings to life the once-thriving coastal community and its distressed inhabitants, who had already been decimated by a punishing economy before they were terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. Incorporating this drama into the long-overlooked history of arson in the United States, American Fire re-creates the anguished nights that this quiet county spent lit up in flames, mesmerizingly evoking a microcosm of rural America – a land half gutted before the fires even began.

Review: True crime is a genre that is known for a focus on the more horrific crimes that can be committed. You will usually find stories of murder, kidnapping, and missing people, and I’ll admit that those are the kinds of stories that float my boat the most. But there is a very large swath of topics that can be covered in the genre, and for the people who are interested in the recent true crime boom but not interested in the blood and gore, I have good news for you. “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land” by Monica Hesse may be the perfect true crime book to check out. Because not only does it address relevant social issues, and focus on a crazy and obsessive romance, it has a shit ton of fires and arson that are incredibly nuts in their origins and motives.

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Buckle up, buttercups, it’s about to get weird. (source)

Hesse doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to revealing the perpetrators of the 60+ arsons that were set in Accomack County, Virginia in 2012. Given that she initially wrote articles for the Washington Post about these fires, the identities of Charles Smith and Tonya Bundick were already out there for all to see if you had followed Hesse’s writings. But that doesn’t make “American Fire” any less compelling. On the contrary, it’s almost more fascinating to be told the backgrounds of Smith and Bundick, the ways that the investigation unfolded for those who had to fight and solve the arsons, and to explore the economic and social circumstances that Accomack County was in when the arsons occurred. What you end up taking away is a smorgasbord of both maddening and upsetting circumstances that came together to create a vortex where these fires terrified and fascinated a community already on its knees. We get to see the relationship between Smith and Bundick come to fruition, and by learning about their backgrounds (from the menial and petty crimes that Smith had already committed to Bundick’s past relationships, be they romantic of familial) we see the context of how these two people found each other, clung to each other, and did completely outlandish acts (like ARSON) together. Hesse compares and contrasts them with other criminal romances, and tries to figure out how their codependence and passion could take such a strange and destructive turn. I thought that she gave them a pretty fair shake, in that she never excuses their actions, but paints a picture that leaves it so the reader can get inside their heads and potentially empathize, at least a little bit. And let me tell you, it’s one crazy ride that reads like something out of a Coen Brothers film, which is only buoyed by Hesse’s writing style and how gifted she is a narrative non-fiction.

But what’s even more interesting is how Hesse peels back the layers of Accomack County itself, and gives us an idea of what it was like in 2012. The arsons were all committed in buildings that were long abandoned, and given that it was 60+ buildings it goes to show that, like other rural parts of America during this time, the economic downturn really hit this area hard. With corporate agriculture and big box stores moving in and pushing independent businesses and their owners out, and with the general nosedive the economy took during the Recession, Accomack County was already going through something bleak, and its residents were in dire straights even before the fires began. The fires became a literal hell scape in a lot of ways, though they also piqued the interests of those in the communities as to who could be doing it. It’s an interesting prelude to what has become such a hot topic as of late, because of the cultural shift that seems to have happened with the 2016 election and how these communities and their grievances have been connected to it. Accomack County feels like a ghost of itself in this book, a place that has been left behind in some ways, and I couldn’t help but think of present day and how it feels like everything is burning to the ground and the inevitable tie our political climate now has to the idea of the forgotten rural areas. It just struck a lot of nerves for me as I read it. And I think that was part of the point that Hesse was trying to make.

“American Fire” might be the perfect true crime book for those who want to give the genre a try, but are reluctant to read something that has too much violence or nihilism. It’s a bizarre tale to be sure, but it has a lot of resonance that I didn’t expect from a book about two lovers who burn shit to the ground. But then one should expect the unexpected when it comes to this book.

Rating 8: A fascinating and a little bonkers tale of romance, fires, and a shifting American culture that reads stranger than fiction.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Fire” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books About Middle America – NonFiction”, and “Murderino Reading List”.

Find “American Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Highway of Tears”

40538634Book: “Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” by Jessica McDiarmid

Publishing Info: Atria Books, November 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: In the vein of the astonishing and eye-opening bestsellers I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and The Line Becomes a River, this stunning work of investigative journalism follows a series of unsolved disappearances and murders of Indigenous women in rural British Columbia.

Along northern Canada’s Highway 16, a yellow billboard reads GIRLS, DON’T HITCHHIKE. KILLER ON THE LOOSE. The highway is a 450-mile stretch of dirt and asphalt, surrounded by rugged wilderness and snowy mountain peaks. It is known as the Highway of Tears. It is here that at least twenty women and girls—most of them Indigenous—have vanished since 1969.

Highway of Tears explores the true story of what has happened along this troubled road. Journalist Jessica McDiarmid reassembles the lives of the victims—who they were, where they came from, who loved them, and what led them to the highway—and takes us into their families’ determined fight for the truth. The book also indicts the initial police investigation marred by incompetence and systemic racism, even as it shines a light on a larger phenomenon: more than a thousand missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada, a topic brought to international attention when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened an official inquiry into the case.

Combining hard-hitting reporting with a keen, human eye, Highway of Tears is a penetrating look at decades’ worth of tragedy and the fight to honor the victims by preserving their stories and providing them the justice they deserve.

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!

I’m a true crime aficionado to the bone, and I have been for as long as I can remember. But I do recognize that there are problematic issues within this genre that should definitely be acknowledged and worked on. One of those issues is that the stories that usually get paid the most attention to involve pretty white women victims, and other victims, especially POC, are not as widely acknowledged. One of the most egregious examples of this is the case of the Highway of Tears in British Columbia, Canada. Highway 16 is a highway that runs a number of miles, and a number of Indigenous women have either disappeared altogether near it, or have been found murdered in the vicinity. Almost all of the cases have gone cold and unsolved, and the victims have been deprived of justice. In “Highway of Tears”, Jessica McDiarmid jumps into a deep and emotional investigation of the crimes, but also of the stories of the women who have been victimized and cast aside, and the life that they were leading before. And boy oh boy, this is one of the most emotionally wrenching true crime books I’ve ever read.

The most important aspect of this book I mentioned above. McDiarmid is very conscientious to give backgrounds and back stories to a large number of the victims, whose disappearances and murders have been happening since the 1970s and up through today. Instead of just being a number of names and a group of lumped in all together, as if their violent ends were their only defining traits, we get comprehensive stories about the various lives that these women led, and the people who were left behind to mourn their loss. I had known about the story of Alberta Williams because of the podcast “Missing and Murdered”, but as each profile and backstory was explored my heart grew heavier and heavier. She makes all of them personalized individuals, and by seeing the trauma that some experienced in life and all of their families experienced in death just shows how unjust it is that not only did they meet these horrible ends, but they haven’t gotten answers or justice.

McDiarmid doesn’t pull any punches when she talks about how the victimization of these women, and in turn their families, is a direct result of a racist system that doesn’t value these women because of their race, their place in society, and their gender. She also does a very good job of showing how the system perpetuates multiple social injustices towards the First Nations population, and how in turn these injustices create an environment where this kind of victimization is far more prevalent compared to other populations in Canada. She also pulls in colonial practices throughout Canadian history, and the direct line that these practices have to modern fallouts for Indigenous groups. From residential schools to alcoholism to poverty to many more, McDiarmid makes it VERY clear that many of these practices have consequences that are still felt today. And on top of all of that, she juxtaposes the differences in approach, attention, and outcomes between the Indigenous women who are missing and murdered, and a few cases where the victims are white women. Suffice to say, Missing White Woman Syndrome plays a huge role, and while the missing and murdered Indigenous women fade into the background, white women get lots of media attention, and lots of resources are poured into the investigations surrounding them. It’s all very upsetting, but all too true.

On top of all of this, McDiarmid has a writing style that will suck you in, and will set the scene so that you feel like you are there. I had a very hard time putting this book down, even though the topic was very upsetting and hard to read about. But McDiarmid insists that you do so, because the story is far too important and has gone unacknowledged by too many for too long. I want this to become the next “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark”. I want this to be read and I want these womens’ stories to be heard and I want them to be seen as who they were. There is no closure with this story. Justice hasn’t been served. But one can only hope that if more people learn about this and speak up, perhaps more will be done.

“Highway of Tears” is a must read. One of the year’s best.

Rating 10: An incredibly powerful and evocative examination of the Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered along Highway 16 in British Columbia, “Highway of Tears” in unforgiving in its indictment of a racist society, and emotional in its profiles of many victims who have been cast aside or forgotten.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Highway of Tears” is new and not on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think it would fit in on “Best True Crime”, and “Canadian Indigenous Books”.

Find “Highway of Tears” at your library using WorldCat!