This month we read about America’s violent racial history in the form of a compelling crime thriller, and explore the history of the world as effected by ten birds
Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane
For most of us, violent racial conflict in 20th-century America probably conjures up images of the Deep South. Yet as Dennis Lehane’s new novel makes horrifyingly clear, the problem was far more widespread than that.
Small Mercies is set in working-class Irish Boston in 1974: the year the city finally decided to desegregate the education system by busing some white kids to traditionally all-black schools and vice versa.
In theory, this might sound like a progressive move. But for the community that Lehane writes about so immersively (he grew up in it himself), it’s a tyrannical imposition by middle-class liberals whose own children won’t suddenly be plunged into an environment where they’re unlikely to receive a warm welcome. There’s also the fact that the Irish regard black people with a level of hostility which Lehane never remotely plays down.
"Lehane is now well established as one of America’s finest crime writers"
The book begins with main character Mary Pat Fennessey agreeing to help publicise an anti-busing rally. The single mother of a teenage daughter, Mary Pat is fully aware of how constricted life is in this part of town, where Irish mobsters rule. The trouble is that she can’t see any way out of it. Things then take a turn for the substantially worse when her daughter disappears at the same time as a young black man is found murdered nearby. So are the two events linked? And if they are, what can a 42-year-old woman do about it? The answer, it transpires is quite a lot and not enough.
Lehane is now well established as one of America’s finest crime writers, who superbly blends uncompromising social history with uncompromising tales of what people driven to the limit will do. But perhaps best of all is his creation of character. As ever, Small Mercies is densely populated with a wide-ranging collection of unforgettable people—none more so than Mary Pat, whose often alarming behaviour somehow doesn’t stop us rooting for her.
Oh yes, and Lehane’s classic tough-guy prose is still in great shape too. One baddie, for example, dies when he “drops to the ground, his body nothing but a bag for non-functioning organs, his soul already halfway to hell”.
Ten Birds That Changed the World by Stephen Moss
Did you know that pigeon post was part of India’s communications system until 2006? Or that cormorant droppings, imported from Peru as fertiliser, made one William Gibbs the richest non-nobleman in 19th century Britain? Or, more alarmingly, that if human babies were fattened at the same rate as commercially farmed turkeys, by the age of 18 weeks they’d weigh 107 stone?
Stephen Moss’s wonderful new book is crammed with startling information like this. As the title suggests, each of the ten chapters centres on one bird—neatly chosen for its effect on human history—but they branch out from there. One, for instance, is on the snowy egret, which was at the heart of a trade even more lucrative than cormorant droppings: the fashion for feathers on women’s hats. Between 1870 and 1920, this caused the death of as many as ten billion birds (not all egrets). On a happier note, it led directly to the founding of the RSPB.
"If human babies were fattened at the same rate as commercially farmed turkeys, by the age of 18 weeks they’d weigh 107 stone"
Along the way, Moss busts some strangely persistent myths. Whatever later naturalists have claimed—even, I’m afraid, Sir David Attenborough—the theory of evolution was not inspired by the young Darwin’s observations of finches’ beaks in the Galapagos Islands. (Nor, in fact, by anything else he saw there.) Despite all those supposed drawings and models of the dodo, we know more about the biology of tyrannosaurus rex than about that of the world’s most famous extinct creature.
The human impact on birds ever since is, as you might expect, a melancholy sub-theme of the book. But here, from 1932, is a less melancholy example. We join the action in Western Australia where the Australian army has launched a major military campaign…
“By 8 November, almost a week after the campaign had begun, the troops had fired 2,500 rounds of ammunition, with very little success. As the realisation dawned that they had grossly misjudged their adversaries, orders were given to withdraw. A rueful Major Meredith compared them to another legendary cohort of warriors: ‘They are like Zulus whom even dum-dum bullets could not stop.’ The only consolation was that, as his official report noted, the soldiers had not suffered any casualties themselves. Which was hardly surprising, given that the enemy was not human, but Australia’s largest bird: the emu.
During the Great Depression, Emus became a serious threat to farmers in Western Australia, eating and destroying crop
This campaign marked the opening salvo of what would become known as ‘the Great Emu War’. It had come about for what seemed a very good reason. Emus had always wandered into this area of Western Australia from the Outback, in search of food and water. But now that the land was being farmed, they’d become a major problem. The issue came to a head as a result of the Great Depression, which reduced wheat prices, leading to major financial hardship for the farmers. That was when, in a classic case of bad timing, more than 20,000 emus arrived on the scene.
Emus are one of the tallest and heaviest birds in the world, which meant they were serious adversaries. They didn’t just eat the crops, but trampled them too, and also knocked holes in fences, allowing rabbits to enter.
Something clearly had to be done. A delegation of former soldiers went to lobby the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce, with the suggestion that machine guns be used to kill and disperse the emu flocks. He agreed straight away. Assuming the troops would be triumphant, Pearce arranged for a cameraman from Fox Movietone to record the event for the cinema newsreels. The resulting short film is a classic example of the power of propaganda over an inconvenient truth.
Sir George Pearce commissioned a short film to be made about the war on Emus
The film opens with jaunty music and the caption ‘WESTERN AUSTRALIA MAKES WAR ON EMUS – Army machine guns are called in to help farmers repel mobs of marauding birds’. The newsreader then delivers a jokey commentary referring to ‘our lads’ and ‘the enemy watching events through their periscopes’—the emus’ long necks. He concludes with this optimistic—and as it turned out, totally false—statement: ‘It seems the tables are turned, and there’ll be no more damage done here for many a day to come.’
"If medals were to be given out, they should go to the emus, as they had ‘won every round so far’"
Less than a week later, with the emus continuing to devastate the crops, there was a second attempt at a cull. Again, the numbers killed were pitiful. By then the debacle was being debated in parliament. When one parliamentarian was asked if an official medal should be issued to the soldiers involved, he responded that if medals were to be given out, they should go to the emus, as they had ‘won every round so far’. To this day, the Great Emu War remains the only example in history of an army being defeated by a bird.”
Read more: Cariad Lloyd: Books that changed my life
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