Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Non-Fiction: An American Trilogy by Steven M. Wise

I think it’s possible that the publication date of Steve M. Wise’s latest book was unfortunate. The best laid plans. An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery & Dominion on the Banks of the Cape Fear River (Da Capo) was published about a week before the strain of influenza most popularly known as swine flu started getting a lot of ballyhoo from CNN and other experts in the art of the sensational. That is to say that the book was published at a time when even staunch animal activists aren’t feeling especially compassionate about the fate of pigs. And, really? That’s a shame because, once again, Wise has written a trenchant and important book.

Wise is a lawyer who has taught at Harvard, Lewis and Clark and other places. He is president of the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights. And he cares very deeply about both human and animal rights, as he demonstrated in several previous books, including Though the Heavens May Fall and Rattling the Cage.

In An American Trilogy Wise trains his sharp eye on Tar Heel, North Carolina, home of the largest slaughterhouse in the world, once the site of atrocities to African American slaves and before that home to indigenous Americans.

At times, An American Trilogy is a difficult book to read. There are some things here a lot of people don’t really want to know. In the book’s prologue, Wise explains that he was deeply affected by the material that moved him to write the book and that passion shows up on every page though, as he tells us, “In this book, I do not recite the atrocities we perpetuate on pigs. Instead, I discuss why we think it’s okay to inflict them. And that discussion will bring us to the study of history.”

In that study, Wise examines why American accept the type of cruelty he shows us in Bladen County, North Carolina. More: he connects it with cruelty to native Americans as well as African American slaves. He does all of this with the style and grace that always marks his work. An American Trilogy is a remarkable book.

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