Cultish, by Amanda Montell

I am endlessly fascinated by language. I am almost equally interested in cults. So when I saw a brief review of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, by Amanda Montell, I knew I had to get a copy. Readers, I was hooked from page one. Over the course of this book, Montell covers suicide cults, fitness fanatics, and multi-level marketing*, always keeping the focus on how cult leaders and members reinvent vocabulary and how those words can shape our feelings and worldview.

After a section in which Montell discusses the word “cult” itself, she dives into the heaviest part of her exploration by looking at Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, and Marshall Applewhite and Heaven’s Gate. The leaders of these cults were able to draw in followers and, ultimately, convince at least some of those followers to commit suicide. Montell talks with survivors, reads or listens to primary source material, and discusses theories with experts in theology and psychology to understand how language played a role in the behavior of the cult members. She shows how language can become so loaded that it not only instantly helps us identify members but also reinforces the us versus them mentality of insiders and outsiders. For example, if someone says they’re pro-life or pro-choice, those terms (at least in America) speak volumes about the people who claim those identities. Montell also talks about thought terminating cliches—a term I didn’t know existed although I recognized them in the instant they were mentioned—which immediately shut down debate. These cliches include things like “god moves in mysterious ways” or “everything happens for a reason.” I’ve always been kind of annoyed by these cliches and now I know why: I wanted to keep talking!

I think Montell is more successful in the later chapters of Cultish, in which she moves on to MLMs and fitness. These aren’t cults in the way we usually mean the term; they’re not religious, although they might borrow some of their language from established religions (especially Christianity, here). New members are told that they are doing the right thing, the best thing, by joining. They often get a lot of instructions for how to live and do things (depending on how all-encompassing the organization might be). Montell writes about the hype new members receive (love-bombing) and the shame they might have thrown at them if they announce intentions to leave. Using ex-member interviews, Montell reveals just how hard it is to shake the conditioning that comes from the loaded language of cultish groups.

Cultish isn’t just about language, as you might be able to tell from my brief review. Rather, Montell describes the work she’s doing as sociolinguistics, which looks at language through psychological and sociological lens. The more I learn about linguistics from podcasts like Lingthusiasm and other sources has shown me that linguistics and language are about a lot more than grammar and vocabulary. Our words are inextricably bound up with how we think and how we feel about, well, everything. It’s all words and their power when you start to think about it. Along the same lines, Cultish is also about becoming aware of that power by asking questions, resisting thought terminating cliches, and watching out for people manipulating words to manipulate others.

* If you’d like to know more about cults and cult-y groups, I recommend Sounds Like a Cult, which Montell hosts with comedian Isabela Medina-Maté.

Index, A History of the, by Dennis Duncan

Any scholar or librarian will tell you, once you start to accumulate information, you’re going to need a way to find the bit you need in the inevitable mountain of clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, parchment codexes, and all the other written and digital texts that followed. Human memory is good, but its been centuries since it was possible to read everything. So it’s no surprise to me and other nerds that indexes have been around since at least the beginning of the common era to help us find that one bit in that one book that we read that one time. In Index, A History of the, by Dennis Duncan takes us on a journey through jotted notes, to the first indexes, to mock indexes, to the massive digital databases that run operations like Google.

The first indexes, according to Duncan, did double duty as memory aids and tables of content. Duncan quotes a letter from Pliny the Elder to the emperor at the time, letting him know that he doesn’t have to bother reading Pliny’s encyclopedia; he can just browse the index instead. But it’s a long way from Pliny’s index to where we are now. Duncan takes trips through alphabetical order, how to accurately indicate locations when people keep making the books different sizes, and how detailed the index should be so that it’s not as big as the original book. So much about the index seems intuitive, because we’ve always had them, but some of the oldest extant indexes we have include instructions about how to read and use an index.

One recurring theme in Index is the surprising amount of vitriol people have expressed about how indexes make things too easy! Just like the recurring arguments about how writing is worse than memorization (Socrates in the Phaedrus) or how whatever that other person is doing isn’t real reading, there have been a surprising number of people who think that using the index is cheating. They fret that students will read the indexes instead of the book. Duncan quotes a lot of witty men sneering at “index-learners.” (It was a sick burn for the 1600s.) From my perspective in the twenty-first century, I would respond to these learned men that indexes are a necessary key to finding anything these days. The libraries we have now would blow their bewigged minds.

J. Horace Round learned the hard way that you should not let your academic rivals index your book. (From Feudal England, 1895)

Over the weekend, I had to work very hard every time I talked to a family member or a friend to not read parts of this book to them. I was fascinated and highly entertained by every chapter of index-y goodness served up by Duncan. I realize that this book is for academic nerds, and not everyone is going to enjoy it the way I did. But you guys, this book is engrossing! And full of index jokes! Which are totally a thing!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The City of Incurable Women, by Maud Casey

Maud Casey’s The City of Incurable Women brings me back to an old fascination of mine: the women incarcerated at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital after being diagnosed with hysteria and other related maladies. Casey’s unusual book blends contemporary photos and doctors’ notes with fictional passages that give voice to women who bore their society’s expectations of their gender and their projected fears of women who broke those expectations. This is not an easy book to read—due to the subject matter and the experimental writing style—but I found it fascinating.

Most of the book (outside of the parts excerpted from actual historical documents) is narrated by a collective “I,” made up of real and imagined inmates of the Salpêtrière. Sometimes an “I” will separate from the pack to tell her story; one of these “I”s is the famous Louise Augustine Gleizes. These stories are sometimes tales of child labor and sexual abuse that end with the Salpêtrière when the “I” can’t take it anymore and she snaps. Others are stories of women who suffer from genuine mental illness. These stories were even more heartbreaking to me, since the late 1800s offered very little hope of relief, much less a cure.

Jean-Martin Charcot and other doctors make brief appearances. Their paternalistic writings—when seen in contrast with the words of their patients—are show up for the hyper-rational nonsense they are. It seems like these men only diagnosed based on physical symptoms and the words of whoever brought the women to the Salpêtrière in the first place. Charcot pre-dated Freud somewhat, but it appears that it never occurred to anyone to actually ask these women about their thoughts and feelings. It’s astounding how Charcot and his colleagues wildly theorized about the causes of symptoms like catalepsy, impressive feats of sleeping, strange facial expressions, or acts of destruction without any repeatable kind of evidence. It’s also astounding to me that it never occurred to these geniuses that some of their patients might have been playing up to the doctors’ expectations for the perks.

Reading a fictional account of the women of the Salpêtrière (in The Mad Women’s Ball) and this semi-fictional account make me want to read a fully non-fictional version, but preferably one that focuses on women like Gleizes. But given the fact that so many of the women only appear in the historical record in Charcot and the other doctors’ (and possibly some police reports), books like Casey’s might be the best way to try and understand what their lives might have been like.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

A Salpêtrière diagnosed with “hysterical yawning,” c. 1890 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Misinformation Age, by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall

Two of my colleagues and I lead a book club for faculty this fall semester using Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall’s The Misinformation Age. Over six sessions, my colleagues and the professors who joined us from across our university, used the book as a springboard for discussions of conspiracy thinking, information literacy, politics, higher education, trust, and so much more. Although this book falls short in at least one critical way, it was a fantastic resource for helping us to understand more about why we fall for misinformation and how it spreads as fast as a retweet.

I’ve been fascinated by misinformation since before the 2016 election. Prior to that #!@$! event, false beliefs and misinformation alternately amused and puzzled me. Why on earth did so many highly intelligent people believe in humoral medicine? Why did so many people think Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds broadcast was real and freak out? But after 2016, it was a lot harder to brush off folks who believe in Q-Anon, refuse to get vaccinated, deny climate change, and so many other things that have zero empirical supporting evidence. I work as an academic librarian. Part of my job is to teach people how to find and use credible information. How can I teach students to be critical about the flood of information we’re all drowning in? How do I teach them to recognize their own cognitive and emotional biases? I hoped The Misinformation Age would give me insights that I could use to help my students sort the credible germ from the misleading, false, and dangerous chaff.

O’Connor and Weatherall approach the problem of misinformation from a philosophical and statistical perspective. They model how scientists form consensus from their interpretations of the data, how dissentors emerge, and how all of this information is disseminated to the public at large. Being a humanities person at heart and a social scientist by profession, there were many moments when these models struck me as simplistic. O’Connor and Weatherall address motive here and there, but what bothers me the most is that the authors only briefly engage with emotion. My own experience and what I’ve learned from reading about conspiracy thinking has led me to believe that you can’t boil down the problem of misinformation down to numbers. Numbers can show us that there is a problem, but they don’t really help us understand the problem. At least, numbers didn’t help me understand issues like confirmation bias, conformity bias, and all the other biases that our goofy gray cells come up with.

What I appreciated most in The Misinformation Age were the examples from history that O’Connor and Weatherall used to introduce and illustrate their points. Perhaps its my humanities background but their recounting of the aggravatingly tragic story of Ignaz Semmelweis, the hilarious trope of the Vegetable Lamb, or the horrifying tale of Pizzagate were a lot more effective for me than models of information transfer and updating of beliefs. I’ve always subscribed to the adage about those who don’t learn history—not to mention the fact that these (hi)stories contain the very human emotions and biases that keep us from being a coldly logical species.

For all my criticisms and quibbles about The Misinformation Age, I’m glad that my colleagues and I chose it for a faculty book discussion series. It was genuinely helpful for us as we shared our experiences, assignments, and questions about misinformation. If nothing else, it helped us generate a thread of really interesting resources for teaching information literacy skills.

Every Day the River Changes, by Jordan Salama

This Thanksgiving weekend, I went to South America…via Every Day the River Changes, by Jordan Salama. Books are the perfect way to travel. Salama braved the heat, the bugs, the humidity, and the aggravation of ahorita (which can mean anything from right now to hours later to “you just missed it). In this travelogue, Salama takes us on an abbreviated trip down the Magdalena River, from the Colombian Massif to Barranquilla, where the river empties into the Caribbean.

On the almost 1,000 mile journey by surely every type of ground transportation Colombia offers, Salama touches on twentieth and twenty-first-century history, erosion, archaeology, Pablo Escobar’s hippos, economic depression, syncretic music, the lost glory days of river travel, and so many more topics. It’s a wonder he packed all that into not much more than 200 pages. In fact, I wish Salama had lingered a little more at his various stops along the Magdalena. For example, Salama often talks about incidents during the decades-long conflict between the Colombian government and revolutionary/insurgent groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but never really goes into how La Violencia started or was resolved.

Salama is at his best when he talks about the dwindling biodiversity of Colombia’s exploited countryside and its effects on the Magdalena River. In its nineteenth and early-twentieth-century heyday, steamboats would travel up and down the river for hundreds of miles. But due to changing economic demands and La Violencia, the forests alongside the river were cut down. Erosion followed, silting up the river so much that the steamboats and larger vessels couldn’t travel far enough to make trips worth the captains’ wile. Fishermen saw their catches get smaller and smaller, both in quantity and in the size of the fish. Garbage travels with currents until it’s spat out into the Caribbean Sea at Barranquilla.

During a moment of reflection while traveling on the river itself (instead of alongside it), Salama writes:

Sunset on the Madgalena near Barrancabermeja (Image via Wikicommons)

The eerie sound of the sand making its presence known brough about these stories of glory and decline, which I’d read with great nostalgia before setting off on my journey. I envied those travelers who wrong of the Madgalena’s golden dawns on steamboat mornings, of the cacophony of monkeys and insects in its trees and the cries of manatees in its waters, because these were things I knew I would never see. In a life marked by news of slaughtered wildernesses and vanishing species and doomed by impending climate catastrophes, I envied them just as I have long envied those lucky enough, in a world before mine, to experience the majesty of nature without feeling the crushing weight of so much loss.

Every Day the River Changes, Chapter 4, Advanced Reader Copy

Unlike Dominic Ziegler’s Black Dragon River (about the Amur River) and other nonfiction books about places I’ve read that tend to focus on histories and peoples, Salama constantly reminds us readers of the river’s condition. Sure, Salama talks to all kinds of people who live along the river—from academics and conservationists to ferry- and fishermen—but his conversations are always about how the river has changed and how it will continue to decline in the near future unless there are major, systemic changes. This focus on the present, plus Salama’s fascination with the river and his sorrow about missing the glory days of the river, serve as a call to arms about what we, humanity, are losing when we actively destroy the landscapes and ecosystems around us. It will cost a lot in terms of money, effort, and time, but places like the Magdalena aren’t irrevocably lost if we act now. If we save the river and its ecosystem, maybe we, too, can travel up the once-mighty river in a steamboat.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

What They Didn’t Burn, by Mel Laytner

Josef Lajtner rarely spoke of what happened to him between 1940 and 1945. His son, journalist Mel and author of What They Didn’t Burn, only knew a few things. He knew that Josef had been imprisoned at Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Buchenwald. He knew that his father had survived partly because he knew how to weld, but there were hints of strange stories and bits of luck that the elder Lajtner never really spoke about. Later, when Mel interviews another Holocaust survivor and asks why the survivor never recorded his testimony, the survivor says, “Why should I?…I don’t have to justify my survival.” Although he never said, I wonder if Josef rarely spoke about the Holocaust because he also didn’t want to discuss why he lived and so many other didn’t. What They Didn’t Burn is the fruit Mel Laytner’s efforts to fill in the blanks. He doesn’t “justify” his father’s survival; he treats it like the extraordinary occurrence that it was.

In the years after the Holocaust, numerous organizations—the Auschwitz Museum, Yad Vashem, the Arolsen Archives—have answered queries from survivors and descendants of survivors looking for information. Mel Laytner sends out calls for any piece of documentation that can help him find out what happened to his father. Laytner also seeks out his father’s friends to glean more names, dates, and events that he can use to trace Josef’s path across Poland and Germany as he worked in a series of forced labor camps. He also travels to Poland, to the towns where his Lajtner relatives lived and the remains of camps where his father and thousands of other Jews struggled to live. By the end of all that travel and research, Laytner knows a lot more about how his father survived, but he’s also left with big questions that he wishes his father was still around to talk over with him.

One question that frequently arises in What They Didn’t Burn is how far can one bend the rules to survive? How far should one bend those rules? The Nazis didn’t give Jews and other prisoners in their custody enough food to live for long. To endure the work, the cold, and the punishments, people had to “organize” food and clothing. Organizing (this verb was constantly used by the survivors Laytner interviews) can range from foraging while on work details to bartering to straight-up theft. Some Jews became kapos for extra rations and privileges. Josef Lajtner was offered a post as a kapo, but refused it because he wouldn’t commit the acts of violence that the position would require of him. Laytner tells us that kapos are a taboo subject among survivors, yet offers multiple examples of Jewish men who used the post to lessen the suffering of their fellow prisoners. Laytner—and his father’s decisions—ask us to take a more nuanced look at the things people had to do in the face of an entire regime and its allies trying to destroy them.

Laytner also touches on the changes in attitudes toward and memorialization of the Holocaust. When he first visits Poland, for example, the Blechhammer camp where his father was imprisoned for most of the war was mostly ruins. There was a sign that let visitors know where they were and what the site was. They had to imagine the rest from what they’d learned or remembered. Years later, parts of the camp had been rebuilt. The difference between Laytner’s first and second visits to the bigger cities in Poland are more troubling. Holocaust tourism (if you’ll forgive the phrase) had become a fully developed industry between those visits. What does it mean for our understanding of the Holocaust that, in some places, no traces remain while in others, history has been recreated for public consumption?

Nothing is simple in What They Didn’t Burn. The documents Laytner receives are complicated by their context and provenance. The physical sites are burdened by years of either erasing the past or preserving it, resurgent anti-Semitism, and the sheer passage of time. I appreciated all of the challenging questions Laytner raises. All too often, I see history oversimplified to the point that it loses meaning. To really think about history and its complexity is to truly engage with it and learn. This may not be the most innovative or startling work about the Holocaust I’ve ever read, but its honesty and Laytner’s depth of scholarship are a perfect tonic to novels that use the Holocaust as window-dressing or nonfiction that plays it safe.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Fuzz, by Mary Roach

Mary Roach’s latest dive into the interesting and odd is Fuzz, in which she pesters experts and government officials in four different counties to ask all kinds of inappropriate questions about human-animal conflict. She talks to wildlife rangers who determine if people were killed by animals, other humans, or by accident. She attempts to get straight answers out of officials who really don’t want to talk about India’s monkey overpopulation problem. And she talks to lots and lots of biologists who study species they clearly enjoy, but that they are tasked with finding ways of eradicating. The result of this tension is that Fuzz might be the most melancholy of Roach’s books. Thankfully, it is packed with irrelevant facts, fun vocabulary, and plenty of silliness.

Humans have been locked in a struggle with many species since the first humanoids. We are killed by and kill in turn large predators like bears, mountain lions, and leopards. (All are covered in Fuzz.) We’ve also been fighting with species who steal our food and mess with our stuff, mostly by pooping on it. (Roach discusses several species of birds and rodents.) We’re not even safe from plants. Windthrown (a new word I learned from Roach) trees destroy our property and occasionally hurt us. Some plants can poison us. It’s a dangerous world out there. As Roach discovers, however, most of the things we do to avoid, mitigate, relocate, or eradicate the problems are pointless.

There’s a fact Roach deploys towards the end of Fuzz. Until the mid-nineteenth century or so, boys were employed as bird scarers. Twice a year, the boys would head out into the fields to scare the crap (literally, but accidentally) out of birds that would eat seed and ripe grain. Because they only did this semi-annually and because they were kids, the birds didn’t acclimate and the scaring worked a charm. All of the other methods used since then—explosives, poisons, and even lasers—stop working very quickly, if they even work at all. The real kicker of this is that birds don’t take that much. A rancher tells Roach in the last chapter that he estimates that the birds take about the same amount of cattle feed that he loses to the wind. These facts summarize Fuzz well. First, technology is no substitute for understanding animal and human behavior. Second, really understanding animals and the ecosystem would show us that it’s best if we left things alone. On the way to this lesson, Roach dives into monkey contraception, gene drive eradication plans, dynamiting treetops, lots of humane rodent traps and less humane poisons, and the US Navy futilely waging war on the gulls of Midway Island.

I learned so much from this book that I’ve been blurting out all kinds of trivia to everyone I’ve talked to in the last two days. The urge to drop trivia into every conversation will probably fade. (It usually does.) What’s going to stick with me is the knowledge that we need to learn to live with all of the other species on this planet. The critters are crafty and they’ve had a very long time to learn how to survive. Our energies would be better spent making peace with the rats and the gulls and getting into the habit of correctly using bear-proof garbage bins.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Illustration from US Patent 269,766 (“Animal Trap”), submitted in 1882 by J.A. Williams (Image via PlanetPatent)

How to Examine a Wolverine, by Philipp Schott

The amiable veterinarian Dr. Philipp Schott is back with a second collection of blog posts, short essays, anecdotes, and thoughts from his decades practicing medicine for the furry denizens of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. This volume, How to Examine a Wolverine, might be the coziest thing I’ve ever read. And, fittingly enough, I read it mostly on a Sunday afternoon with one or the other cat napping in my lap.

The chapters jump back and forth in time from Dr. Schott’s days in veterinary school almost up through the present. Unlike the previous book, this collection is a little light on the animal stories. Rather, Dr. Schott spends a lot more time answering frequently asked questions about cats and dogs (Why do cats like catnip? Is catnip addictive? Why are dog farts so pungent? Is being a vet now at all like it was in Dr. James Harriot’s day? How do you examine that wolverine from the zoo?) He also ruminates (‘scuz the pun) on what draws people into veterinary medicine, why vet care is so expensive, how to deal with difficult customers, why the profession flipped from mostly male to mostly female in the last 50 years…and so much more. This sounds like an awful lot of topics for such an easy read. Dr. Schott mostly manages this by keeping the chapters short.

The best chapters in this book are the animal stories. (My personal favorite involves a cat named Blizzard that is as destructive as its namesake.) In fact, this book makes me wish that I could spend a Sunday afternoon with the doc himself, a mug of tea, and lots of time for me to winkle every cat and dog story out of him that I can.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

Anyone looking at the coroners and the use of forensics experts in Mississippi would see a deeply flawed—possibly irredeemably—system that ignores murders and sends innocent people to prison for life or condemns them to death. But Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington argue in The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist that the system is working as exactly as designed. Any time someone tries to reform this system they are quickly shown the door. Legal reform is equally difficult, even with lawyers from organizations like the Innocence Project trying to win appeals and exonerations. Balko (a journalist) and Carrington (a law professor and first director/founder of the Mississippi Innocence Project) came to this story, they write in the first chapter, because two cases of wrongful conviction lead them to two of the biggest problems with Mississippi’s coronial system: Steven Hayne and Michael West. Balko and Carrington tear into Hayne and Wests’ reputations and bury these so-called expert witnesses in evidence of their shoddy work, pro-prosecution testimony, and years of lies.

Balko and Carrington’s The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is the kind of true crime book that enthralls me at the same time that it makes me seethe. The authors did an astounding amount of research to put this book together. Not only do they take down Hayne and West, they also write a history of Mississippi’s coronial system in the twentieth century. For those not familiar, Mississippi (like a lot of American states) uses a system of elected coroners to determine if sudden deaths are either accidents, suicides, or murders. Unless the coroner declares a death a homicide, local law enforcement won’t investigate. Balko and Carrington share reports about the coronial system the reveal that many (most) of Mississippi’s coroners were, for decades, rarely qualified in medicine or forensics. Some of these coroners were, they found, illiterate. During the Civil Rights Movement, so many murders went uninvestigated that Mississippi gained a reputation as a murderers’ haven (especially if the victim was Black).

Balko and Carrington skillfully blend this history with the cases of Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer. These two men were charged with similar crimes. Brooks was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of toddler Courtney Smith. Brewer was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of another toddler, Christine Jackson. Both crimes, Balko and Carrington reveal, were committed by the same man—a man who was able to escape justice for decades because local law enforcement and the district attorney thought they had already gotten the person responsible in each case. Its only thanks to the Innocence Project, post-conviction lawyers, and increasingly sophisticated DNA science that Brooks and Brewer were exonerated. They were also exonerated in part because enough people were starting to ask questions about Hayne and West, who had delivered damning (and false) forensic testimony during Brooks and Brewer’s trials.

I’ve been ambivalent about the death penalty for a long time. Novels and true crime and TV shows have showed me how much of America’s court system is legal theater. Whoever can hire the best lawyer, who can put on the best show for the judge and jury, can—barring really convincing forensic evidence—be acquitted. People who can’t afford a good lawyer can be rushed through a trial to a life term or a death sentence. I would usually say that I don’t support the death penalty except in cases of serial murderers but, after reading The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (among other books) has me questioning the entire law enforcement and criminal justice system so much that I think we should ban the death penalty. I also think that there should be a lot more regulations to make sure that coroners, sheriffs, and the rest are all professionals who know what they are doing, in addition to bigger consequences for officials who commit ethical violations and building a much more robust public defender system.

Little Brother, by Ibrahima Balde

Little Brother, by Ibrahima Balde (co-written with Amets Arzallus Antia and solidly translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker) is an account of the author’s epic journey across North Africa to find his younger brother. Balde is the oldest son in his family which, after his father suddenly dies when Balde was a young teenager, makes him the primary breadwinner for his mother, two sisters, and little brother. In brief chapters, Balde tells us how he tried to support his family and then, when that little brother tries to make it to Europe, how Balde went after that brother to try and bring him back home.

Balde is not an ambitious person. He is relatively content to find work as a trucker’s apprentice with the long haulers who crisscross Guinea (where Balde is from), Liberia, and Sierra Leone. But when he gets a call that his brother has gone north in an attempt to get to Europe to make a living for the family, Balde takes it upon himself to try and follow. This leaves Balde’s mother and two sisters alone at their farm in the Guinean countryside, but what else can Balde do? He pulls together as much money as he can and follows his brother’s trail.

I was astounded to read about Balde’s journey. More than once, Balde has to walk for miles in the Sahara between towns. And it’s not just the elements that might kill Balde. At one point, Balde is captured by a group of Tuareg who enslave him. After that, Balde is on the run from them as well as trying to keep himself alive in the desert. There are a few kind people in the desert who help Balde and other migrants along the way, but there are so many migrants and refugees that they can only do so much. Between the kind ones and the slavers, there are those who will help migrants and refugees get further north…for a price. When he meets a new person, Balde is gambling on whether or not that new person wants to help him, bilk him, or enslave him.

Balde packs so much into the very short chapters of Little Brother. In those brief paragraphs, Balde shows us his love for his family, his determination, and his phenomenal inner strength. Balde does an impressive amount with remarkably few words, words that put us on Balde’s shoulder as he walks all those miles to look for his little brother. Readers who love reading inspirational stories or tales of hardship will enjoy this one.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

A Tuareg man in the Algerian desert (Image via Wikicommons)