Edward Morris

Reality is the most effective antidote to a religion whose tenets are designed to keep their members segregated from “the world.” In Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life, Amber Scorah chronicles her journey into the world and, subsequently, away from her religious community. By Scorah’s account, her Jehovah’s Witnesses church kept its members preoccupied studying, preaching and submitting records of their activities; discouraged them from going to college and cultivating friendships outside their congregation; and advised them to take subsistence jobs rather than pursuing careers that might refocus their interests. Why bother with careers, after all, when Armageddon is just around the corner?

Email turned out to be the serpent in Scorah’s Eden. After she and her husband moved to Shanghai in 2005 to preach their gospel (which was illegal there and had to be done furtively), she took a job podcasting about life in China. Listeners were encouraged to email her questions and comments. One who did so was Jonathan, a screenwriter in Los Angeles. It becomes clear that something emotionally seismic is brewing in the narrative when the reader notices that Scorah never states her husband’s first name or endows him with personality but quotes lavishly from her correspondence with Jonathan, who views her religion as a cult and tells her so.

Although she was so devoted to the Witnesses that she learned Mandarin in order to preach in China, she finds her faith slipping under Jonathan’s barrage of skepticism. Her exhilaration at finally making the break is tempered greatly, however, by the realization that it has cost her the comfort and friendship of everyone she’s been close to throughout her insulated life, including her entire family. With nothing to hold her elsewhere, she relocates to New York to embark on a new plane of existence. The last pages of her story are heartbreaking, but unlike many apostates who look back wistfully at the beliefs they’ve left behind, Scorah has no doubt that she has delivered herself from a kind of evil.

In Leaving the Witness, Amber Scorah chronicles her journey into the world and, subsequently, away from her Jehovah’s Witness religious community.

Because of journalist Elliott Maraniss’ close ties to the Communist Party, various government agencies and informants shadowed him throughout his life—from the late 1930s when he was a student and editorial writer at the University of Michigan, through his meritorious service in World War II, and well into his post-war civilian life. This surveillance came to a boil on March 12, 1952 in Detroit, when Maraniss appeared, as subpoenaed, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Merely being summoned to appear had cost him his job at the Detroit Times, and his refusal to answer the committee’s questions about his political affiliations and associates doomed him to being blacklisted and hounded out of work for years.

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and associate editor of the Washington Post, focuses on this persecution of his father and other leftists to construct both a social and a family history, enlivened by family letters and other personal artifacts. Maraniss readily acknowledges that his father was a Communist who was slow to reject the party line dictated from Stalinist Russia. But ultimately he sees his father as a liberal idealist who never wavered from his belief in America’s essential goodness. Elliott Maraniss’ ordeal, his son asserts, failed to make him bitter or lessen his zeal for social justice. Always the objective reporter, Maraniss humanizes his father’s inquisitors by probing deeply into their backgrounds to ferret out both their virtues and flaws.

The University of Michigan bristled with leftist politics in the late 1930s. Future playwright Arthur Miller was there at the time and was one of many protesting the rise of fascism in Spain and Germany. So was Elliott’s future wife, Mary, who was possibly even more fervent in her politics than he, and her brother Bob Cummins, who would put his life and career on the line by taking up arms against the fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War.

After moving from state to state and job to job, Elliott Maraniss finally found a journalistic home at the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, where, over the next quarter of a century, he would rise from reporter to executive editor. In Madison, the author concludes, his parents were at last able to shake off “the chains of the past with their idealism and optimism intact.”

Author David Maraniss focuses on the persecution of his father and other leftists to construct both a social and a family history of the Red Scare.

Anuradha Bhagwati has defined herself through acts of resistance. As the only child of prominent India-born academics, she was a dutiful daughter during her preteen years in Boston and New York, deferential to authority and always—as demanded—earning top grades. But in high school, her “good girl” stature began to erode—at least in her parents’ eyes. She developed a crush on a female classmate and, much to her father’s distaste, became “obsessed” with playing basketball. Then, while she was attending Yale, she became deeply involved with an older, black and marijuana-smoking boyfriend.

Her greatest cultural aberration, however, came in 1999 when she dropped out of graduate school at Columbia, where both her parents taught, and joined the Marines. She was 24. “I wanted trials. I wanted to be tested. I wanted something extreme,” she writes. That experience and its politically related aftermath are the main themes of this book. Even as she relished in and thrived on the physical agonies of Marine training, she came to abhor the Corps’ contradictory attitudes toward women—on the one hand, paternalistically forbidding them from combat and, on the other, viewing them as sexual playthings. She admits to being quite sexually active herself while in service—from hiring a female prostitute in Thailand to sleeping with “a small assortment of Marine men.”

Ultimately, Bhagwati fought the command structure over its indifference to sexual harassment—but with little success. She resigned from the Corps after five years with the rank of Captain. After that, Bhagwati became active in seeking better treatment of female veterans and demanding that women be allowed to serve in battle.

A thicket of conflicting impulses, Bhagwati still has contempt for the Marines while also excoriating herself for not having been a better one. Oddly enough, for someone so politically outspoken about gender and race, she says nothing about America’s military invasions of other countries.

Anuradha Bhagwati has defined herself through acts of resistance. As the only child of prominent India-born academics, she was a dutiful daughter during her preteen years in Boston and New York, but in high school, her “good girl” stature began to erode

Only the hoariest among us remember when the Cuban revolution was chic and Fidel Castro was feted as a modern-day Robin Hood. In his fast-paced and highly entertaining book Cuba Libre!, Tony Perrottet spotlights the bright hopes that propelled the revolution and the herculean effort that enabled a ragtag band to defeat a dictator’s army of 40,000 in just over two years.

President Fulgencio Batista began a reign in 1952 that was remarkable for its corruption and brutality. Castro’s career as a rebel against Batista began a year later, with a failed attack on an army barrack. After his release from prison, Castro retreated to Mexico to plan further resistance. There he met and enlisted the Argentinean doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara. With a band of 82 men, Castro returned to Cuba by sea in late 1956. A disastrous landing led to most of his troops being captured or killed. The few survivors took refuge in the rugged Sierra Maestra range and trained their eyes on distant Havana.

Perrottet relies on contemporary newspaper accounts and journals to depict the perilous living conditions in the mountains, explain the essential roles of female leaders and illustrate Castro’s genius in public relations. The victories against Batista grew slowly but inexorably and were, for the most part, chronicled sympathetically by the American media. Finally, Castro made his triumphant entry into Havana on January 8, 1959. His honeymoon with the U.S. lasted only a few months, until it became clear that he really did intend to reform the Cuban economy at the expense of those who had drained it.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Only the hoariest among us remember when the Cuban revolution was chic and Fidel Castro was feted as a modern-day Robin Hood. In his fast-paced and highly entertaining book Cuba Libre!, Tony Perrottet spotlights the bright hopes that propelled the revolution and the herculean effort that enabled a ragtag band to defeat a dictator’s army of 40,000 in just over two years.

So much has been written about the folk band the Weavers being blacklisted from performing in the 1950s that it obscures the far more important fact that they still became one of America’s most influential music groups. The Weavers launched in 1949 with Pete Seeger on banjo, Fred Hellerman on guitar and Lee Hays and Ronnie Gilbert on vocals. Each of the band members had deep political roots and regarded music as a benign form of propaganda for progressive causes. Seeger had joined the Young Communist League in 1937, when he was 18, and by the onset of World War II, he was already being shadowed by the FBI. Of all the left-leaning Weavers, he would be the most hounded.

The Weavers’ first steady gig was at the Village Vanguard in New York, where they were discovered by the noted bandleader Gordon Jenkins. Enthralled by their harmonies and exuberance, he signed them to Decca Records. From 1950 to 1952, the group scored a series of high-ranking pop singles, including “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” “Goodnight Irene,” “On Top of Old Smokey” and “Wimoweh.” These songs led to more bookings at major nightclubs around the country. However, as their fame increased, so did the hue and cry of both the conservative government and self-appointed blacklisters.

In Wasn’t That a Time, author Jesse Jarnow astutely chronicles how the Weavers lost gigs, quit working as a group, and dealt with internal dissension and government persecution. However, these musicians continued to bounce back into the spotlight at regular intervals up until the 1980s. Denied access to airtime on both radio and television, the Weavers became one of the first groups to deliver their music directly to the masses via live recordings on the then-new long-play vinyl albums. As to the many acts they influenced, Jarnow cites Harry Belafonte; the Byrds; the Beach Boys; Peter, Paul and Mary; Judy Collins; Jerry Garcia; Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. All of the members of the Weavers are gone now, but their music survives in virtually every political sing-along.

So much has been written about the Weavers being blacklisted from performing in the 1950s that it obscures the far more important fact that they still became one of America’s most influential pop music groups.

Bestselling author and National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick subtitles his latest history “The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown.” But it could just as accurately be, “the frustrations of George Washington.” Six years into the Revolutionary War, it was still a toss-up as to whether the American rebels or the British crown would prevail.

General Washington, still quartered in New York in 1781, realized that the revolutionaries’ success depended on the difficult task of coordinating with the French navy and persuading them to heed his strategies. But French intransigence wasn’t the totality of Washington’s worries. His troops were resentful at going unpaid, and the colonies were notoriously parsimonious in funding the larger war effort. Then there were the abiding distractions of the general’s inflamed gums, rotting teeth and failing eyesight.

Drawing on letters, journals and sea logs, Philbrick manages to impart the immediacy of breaking news to his descriptions of marches, skirmishes and battles. From describing crucial shifts in the wind during naval conflicts to detailing the unimaginable horror of war wounds, he places the reader in the midst of the fray. The successful three-week siege of Yorktown, Virginia, in the fall of 1781 effectively won the war for Washington and humbled his tenacious adversary Lord Cornwallis.

The most tragic figures, however, were the slaves who joined the British in a bid to ensure their own liberation. As the siege tightened, Cornwallis decided that “despite having promised the former slaves their freedom, dwindling provisions required that he jettison them from the fortress” and into the hands of their former masters.

In the Hurricane’s Eye is illustrated with an array of useful maps and a section that reveals what happened to the principal American, French and British players after the war.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Bestselling author and National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick subtitles his latest history “The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown.” But it could just as accurately be, “the frustrations of George Washington.” Six years into the Revolutionary War, it was still a toss-up as to whether the American rebels or the British crown would prevail.

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