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Bea's Book Club celebrates diversity! 
The club is named in fond memory of longtime SWIC librarian, Bea Fries. Bea held the position of librarian at SWIC for forty-five years from July 1967 until May 2012. Her generous bequest to the SWIC Library established the Bea Fries Memorial Library Fund. Through this fund, a great deal of library materials are acquired each year for all to enjoy! Bea's Book club is DEI intentional. Book selections and supplemental materials celebrate, recognize and inform readers about the culture, traditions, histories and contributions of historically marginalized communities. Everyone is invited to this enlightening forum of books and activities that inspire, educate and increase empathy as well as cultural awareness.


Black History Selection - 2024

The Nickel Boys  by Colson Whitehead

Based on the real story of a reform school, Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative about a black boy named Elwood Curtis growing up in 1960s Tallahassee who is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy where he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. This novel showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.  Read more ... 

Published in 2019. Pulitzer Prize Winner; National Best Seller. "One of the most gifted novelists in America today." —NPR. 


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1. In the prologue, the narrator observes that after the truth about Nickel Academy comes out, “even the most innocent scene – a mess hall or the football field – came out sinister, no photographic trickery necessary.” Can you think of a time in your life when discovering the history of a place (a particular building, a statue, a historical landmark, etc.) dramatically changed your perception of it?

2. Elwood says that both he and Yolanda King “woke to the world,” or discovered racism, at six years old. How old were you when you became aware of racism and inequality? How do you think this experience is different for different people? 

3. While in the infirmary, Elwood reads a pamphlet about Nickel that details the contributions the school has made to the community, including bricks from the brick-making machine “propping up buildings all over Jackson County.” What do you think of the ways that the wider community seemed to benefit from labor performed by Nickel students? Do you see any historical or modern-day parallels to this symbiotic relationship?

4. One student, Jaimie, is half-Mexican and constantly shuffled between the “white” and “colored” sections of Nickel Academy. Why do you think the author included a character with Jaimie’s ethnic identity in this story?

5. One of Elwood’s takeaways from Dr. King’s speeches is the importance of maintaining one’s dignity in the face of oppression.  Is Elwood’s decision to escape (and risk the consequences of capture) rooted in the realization that he can no longer maintain his dignity in a place like Nickel?

6. At one point, the narrator writes that “laughter knocked out a few bricks from the wall of segregation, so tall and so wide.” Does humor truly lighten the burden for the boys?  Or is it merely one of the very few things that can’t be taken away from them?

7. Who do you think was the true “villain” of the story? The teachers? The school itself? Something or someone else?


Colson Whitehead


Born Arch Colson Whitehead on November 6, 1969, novelist Colson Whitehead spent his formative years in Manhattan, New York with his parents, Arch and Mary Anne Whitehead, who owned a recruiting firm, and three siblings. Of his childhood, he has said that he preferred reading science fiction and fantasy and watching horror films. He attended Trinity School in New York, NY, and later, Harvard University in Massachusetts where he studied English and Comparative Literature. At Harvard, Whitehead became friends with classmate Kevin Young, a poet and current director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. After graduating with a B.A. in 1991, Whitehead worked for the Village Voice as a music, book, and television critic. He left the paper in the late nineties and has since taught at several universities including Columbia, University of Houston in Texas, and Princeton in New Jersey. ~From BlackPast 

Colson has established himself as one of the most versatile and innovative writers in contemporary literature. The first person to win back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes in fiction for consecutive works, he has dazzled readers across the globe with his #1 New York Times–bestselling novel, The Underground Railroad, as well as The Nickel Boys, Harlem Shuffle, and now Crook Manifesto. Warm, candid, and funny, Whitehead captivates audiences with his thoughtful and inspiring talks about the intersection of writing, history, and culture, and the power of art and imagination to help us make sense of the world.

Colson is the critically acclaimed, #1 New York Times–bestselling author of eleven works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Underground Railroad (winner of the 2016 National Book Award and 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) and The Nickel Boys (winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). When selecting it as an Oprah Book Club pick, Oprah Winfrey raved, “From the first page of Colson Whitehead’s extraordinary novel The Underground Railroad, I knew I was reading something ground-shifting.” Whitehead’s most recent novels, Harlem Shuffle and Crook Manifesto, are the first two installments of a trilogy set on the streets of New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. The hugely entertaining stories offer hilarious morality plays, incisive commentary on race and power, and ultimately read as a love letter to Harlem. Several of Whitehead’s novels have been adapted for TV and film, including producer Barry Jenkins’ Underground Railroad limited TV series on Amazon, MGM Orion’s film adaptation of The Nickel Boys, and HBO Max’s TV series on Sag Harbor.

Time magazine named Whitehead one of the “100 Most Influential People” in 2017, the Library of Congress awarded him the Prize for American Fiction in 2020, and in 2021 he received the National Humanities Medal from President Biden for his contributions “as an American literary icon.” His cultural impact continues to grow with each new book. A dynamic speaker, Whitehead lectures with his characteristic honesty and wit. He is a winsome storyteller who enthralls audiences with anecdotes about his diverse bibliography, irreverent “Rules for Writing,” and his unique approach to every novel.

A 2016 National Book Award winner, The Underground Railroad is a magnificent tour de force that chronicles a young slave’s journey during a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. The novel offers a shattering meditation on the United States’ complicated political and racial history. Whitehead’s 2019 book, The Nickel Boys, is an exploration of life under Jim Crow told from the perspective of two boys in one of the country’s most notorious real-life juvenile correction institutions, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, located in the Florida panhandle. This meticulously researched and searing novel was an instant New York Times bestseller, won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and was longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award and nominated for The National Book Critics Circle Award.

Whitehead is also the author of The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, The Colossus of New York (a book of essays about the city), Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One, and The Noble Hustle. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Harper’s, and Granta, among other publications. A PEN/Faulkner Award finalist and recipient of the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the Kirkus Prize, and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, Whitehead also received both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has taught at universities across the country and he lives in New York City. ~From PRH Speakers Bureau 

with Colson Whitehead

How did you come up with the idea for this book? In the acknowledgements, you write that the Nickel Academy was based on a real juvenile institution, the Florida Industrial School for Boys, also called the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

Colson Whitehead: Yes, so I was goofing around on Twitter as I often do, and someone retweeted a news report. It was the summer of 2014 — the Dozier School had been closed for a couple of years and they were excavating the site so they could sell it, and they found some unmarked graves of dozens of students. It was a terrible story: there were stories of physical and sexual abuse, and the bodies they found had evidence of blunt trauma to the skulls and some of them had shotgun pellets in their rib cages. It just seemed like, if there’s one place like this, there’s many. It was also a story that hadn’t been told, especially in those first accounts that came across — the survivors were all white and the majority of the students were African American — so I wondered what was happening on the Northern, colored part of campus.

How did you conduct the research for this book? Did you do interviews, read books? Did you visit the school?

CW: There are a few memoirs of people’s time there. The White House Boys is a survivors group, and on their website they post some first-hand accounts, and there is a lot of newspaper reportage, particularly in the Tampa Bay Times from a guy named Ben Montgomery.

I wanted to go to the school; I like doing research, you know, getting out of the house, so I can earn my real writer badge, but in this case, the more I worked on the book and the more I got into Elwood and Turner’s story, the more depressed and angry I got, and I decided not to go just because it made me feel too terrible. And if I ever go, it will just be with a bulldozer and some dynamite, I think.

The characters of Elwood and Turner are different in how they think about and experience what is happening to them. Turner has a more cynical view of humanity’s inherent nature, whereas Elwood is more idealistic and believes in the teachings of Martin Luther King and passive resistance. Do you find yourself coming down on either side of the idealism or cynicism debate, or is this more an argument you continue to explore in your life and your writing?

CW: I think a lot of us have this sort of argument; there is the evidence that the world is terrible and we do terrible things to each other, but also we have to have hope that things can get better, that the next generation will inherit a better world. It’s a very vexing problem and I don’t really come down on either side, personally. The book speaks for itself in terms of its own point of view, but personally, yes, I find myself at a loss often when I look at the news. I read about global warming, or the rise of right-wing governments, or unarmed black men being shot in the back by white policemen, so I would say the struggle continues.

Another idea you explored in the book was that of lingering trauma, and how the boys’ past abuse at Nickel affected their lives going forward. What do you think about the parallel with what is going on now in the U.S., with the separation of migrant families at the Mexican border and its long-lasting psychological effect on children?

CW: The incarceration camps at the border were not being reported on while I was writing the book, but what struck me about the story of the Dozier School was, obviously, if there is one place like this there are many. In Ireland, there was a home for unwed mothers where about two years ago they discovered a bunch of graves of children who had been killed or died under mysterious circumstances. I was just in Canada and they were talking about the residential schools; the government took indigenous children away from their families to instruct them in white culture and the same kind of abuse that happened at Dozier happened there. The simple fact is that the powerful prey upon the weak and are rarely held accountable; the connection to what is happening now at the border is sort of obvious, and it’s happening all the time everywhere.

The Underground Railroad had some elements of magical realism. What made you want to be more realistic and true-to-life in this book?

CW: I’ve written a few books and sometimes I use realism, sometimes I use fantasy, sometimes I have a first-person narrator, sometimes I have a third-person narrator. The story didn’t require that I brought in a fantastic rhetorical prop. I wanted to stay close with the two boys; I knew where they were coming from and where they were going on the last page and, as always, I try to figure out the way to approach when I start and sometimes that tool is useful and sometimes it’s not.

Are you looking forward to visiting some independent bookstores on your tour for The Nickel Boys?

CW: Yes, I’ll be going to some smaller indie stores, some bigger stores, and small stores that are hosting off-site events. My first book was about elevator inspectors, and who is going to support a debut novel by some weird black guy about elevator inspectors? And the answer is independent bookstores. They’ve always been supportive of my books no matter how oddball they sounded, and so I cherish their early endorsement and support. They have continued to hand-sell my books and be very supportive throughout the last 20 years, so I’m really grateful and glad that we’re in a good moment now for independent bookstores. I think they’re really thriving and it’s lovely to be able to go back to a place I went years ago and to go to new stores that have come up in the last couple years. I’m always glad to hit the road because I get to see a lot of new and familiar faces and people who have been very kind over the years.

Is there something you’re working on now or thinking about getting started, and if so, can you tell readers anything about it?

CW: I usually take more time off between books, but in this case I had set aside a crime novel set in Harlem in the ’60s to work on The Nickel Boys, so I got back to it really quickly because I had done a lot of work on it. I wrote a third of it in the winter and spring, and I’ll go back to it come Halloween, when I’m done traveling.

~ Interview from ABA



cultural context for The Nickel Boys


Black is Beautiful 

Black is Beautiful: The Emergence of Black Culture and Identity in the 60s and 70s

From The National Museum of African American History and Culture








Black Focused Media Featured in The Nickel Boys




In the novel, each of these publications were sold at Mr. Marconi’s store thanks to Elwood’s urging and were primary publications that represented the political and personal interests of Black Americans.








Jet Magazine

Founded in 1951, JET is an American weekly magazine that features African American political and entertainment news. In this issue from 1961, articles include discussions of police brutality, segregation in schools and housing discrimination as well as profiles of prominent Black figures in American entertainment and politics.










James Baldwin

The works of James Baldwin inspire and inform Elwood’s intellectual life in the novel.

  • The first clip is a portion of Baldwin’s response during a famous debate vs. William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in 1965.
  • The second clip is from a debate style interview on the Dick Cavett show in 1968.


The history upon which the novel is based

Historical Fiction and The Reality in the Fiction of Nickel Boys

This NPR profile explains the history of abuse, violence and murder that occurred at The Dozier School for Boys, the real-life school upon which the fictional Nickel School is based. The Dozier School shut its doors in 2011.

Historical Background and Current Issues Facing Reform Schools

It’s time to get rid of reform schools: We need to seize the opportunity to rethink our juvenile justice system.

The linked article is an Op-Ed arguing for the closure of an existing reform school in Pennsylvania. The content of the article provides helpful history and context for the founding of reform schools and also how that troubled legacy persists today.



Glen Mills Schools in Glen Mills, Pa., in March. A spokeswoman for the nation's oldest reform school says they'll appeal the state's decision to revoke licenses at the suburban Philadelphia campus amid an investigation into child abuse allegations. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Jim Crow Laws in the 1960’s

This linked image will take you to one page of Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which is a museum devoted to anti-racist work and education. As explained on the website, the museum “us[es] objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice.” The website is a tremendous resource that illustrates and explains the racist legacy of America’s past and present through images and objects. Feel free to explore the rest of the website to learn more about a variety of topics.

PLEASE NOTE: Many of the images and objects, by their very nature, are difficult and upsetting to view. Please use discretion as you explore this site.

A Man of Many Worlds: Exploring the Works of Colson Whitehead

Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author — Whitehead has created a body of work as diverse and immersive as the worlds featured in his books. From stories about failing elevator detectives to a zombie apocalypse to dealing with the lasting effects of institutional abuse, Whitehead doesn’t limit himself to one type of story or one way of telling them.

But with eight masterfully written yet widely different novels spanning more than 20 years, it might be hard to choose where to begin. And so, to introduce you to the wonderful worlds of Whitehead — and help you choose a starting point that’s right for you — we’ll explore some of his most popular books below.

The Intuitionist (1999)

Whitehead’s debut novel burst into the literary world with a unique take on the detective story. Featuring a compelling cast of characters, the book explores the intersection of tradition versus change against the backdrop of a city struggling to adapt to an ever-evolving world.

In an unnamed time, in a city composed of towering skyscrapers, Lila Mae Watson is the first Black, female elevator inspector trained by the Intuitionist school. Her job: ride the city’s many elevators to “intuit” the efficient operation of the elevator and each building’s numerous, interconnected systems. When an elevator that Watson had inspected suffers a catastrophic failure, casting doubt not only on her but the Intuitionist school, Watson must go back to the basics of her education to discover the truth about herself and the terrible circumstances she’s thrown into.

Receiving glowing reviews and solid sales, The Intuitionist launched Whitehead’s literary career. In an interview with Salon, Whitehead, who originally planned for a male protagonist, said of the book, “My whole life I've seen those elevator inspection certificates. I'd go to school, when I was a kid, and come back, and the person had been there, the exact same guy for 10 years. The elevator seemed perfectly fine, so what'd he do? I was thinking about what would make a funny detective story. Well, why not put this person in a situation where he actually has to apply his esoteric skills to a straightforward mystery?

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John Henry Days (2001)

Writing a follow-up to a debut novel can be a daunting task for any author. Writing a follow-up with completely different characters, setting, and themes is more challenging, still. But Whitehead succeeds in brilliant fashion with John Henry Days.

The book tells the story of J. Sutter, a freelance reporter (and professional moocher) covering the debut of a postage stamp during the first annual festival celebrating the mythic life and legacy of the American folk hero, called “John Henry Days,” in West Virginia. Through his reporting, Sutter (and, by extension, Whitehead), retells the legendary story of John Henry and discovers parallels between the life of America’s “Steel Drivin’ Man,” his own challenging circumstances, and the ways that technology leaves so many people behind even as it elevates others.

Lauded as a triumphant second novel, John Henry Days propelled Whitehead to further acclaim, casting aside any doubts that he was a “one-hit wonder.” On writing the book, Whitehead said to BOMB magazine, “I wanted to break free of my previous novel, The Intuitionist, which is very hermetic; it takes place in one city and has a very small cast. In John Henry Days, a lot of characters present themselves. As I started to think about the transmission of the John Henry myth and the theme of changing technology, I created characters who would provide footholds for discussing the oral ballad transmission, and then sheet music, the advent of vinyl, and then the late 20th century where we have all different technological formats for expression.”

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Apex Hides the Hurt (2006)

Whitehead has established a reputation for putting unique characters in unique situations, crafting casts and scenarios that are alien to us yet completely relatable. Much of that reputation began with his third novel, Apex Hides the Hurt, a reflection on the power of names and, more importantly, the struggles for power represented in granting something a name.

In the novel, the protagonist, an unnamed “nomenclature consultant,” travels to the fictional town of Winthrop to exercise his oddly unique skill: advising clients about choosing attention-grabbing names for their new products. As the town council considers changing the name of their home, the consultant has to navigate the history and townsfolk of Winthrop, each with their own ideas about what the name should be. Amongst this intricate web of personalities, only one thing is guaranteed: choosing an appropriate name for Winthrop will be an uphill struggle.

Speaking with Alma Books, Whitehead said the motivation for this novel came from an article he read about the process of choosing a name for pharmaceuticals. “... I had a different idea about how we exert [through a similar process] control over certain parts of the city. Like, when someone gets their name on a boulevard: it’s an honor, but as years pass we forget who, say, Roebling is. And I started thinking about how to get these two ideas into a book.”

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Sag Harbor (2009)

Turning from the unorthodox, Whitehead’s next novel would tell a more “down to earth,” coming-of-age story, set in a real place and exploring a fictionalized account of his own childhood experiences.

Set during 1985, in the incorporated village of Sag Harbor, New York, the book tells the story of brothers Benji and Reggie Cooper during their summer escapade away from an elite, wealthy, and mostly-White preparatory school in Manhattan. Hilarity ensues as Benji and Reggie reconnect with old friends, immerse themselves in the latest profanities on everyone’s tongues, and interact with a community of close-knit Black families and business owners who have carved out thriving and beautiful lives for themselves.

In writing Sag Harbor, perhaps his most introspective novel to date, Whitehead said said that his goal was to manufacture genuine nostalgia, without leaning on the usual tropes found in many coming-of-age stories. In an interview with Fiction Writers Review, Whitehead said, “... very quickly, I knew that I wasn’t going to have artificial coming-of-age events like a lynching or a big fire or someone accidentally killed. So, I did spend a lot of the time when I wasn’t writing thinking about how to elevate these very mundane moments into the stuff that was art-worthy. I started making notes like, Go to the beach? Get a summer job? And then I had to ask myself: ‘How do these small events eventually become chapters, become compelling points of intrigue for the reader?’"

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Zone One (2011)

If Sag Harbor was a pleasant, though compelling, stroll down memory lane for readers, Whitehead’s next novel would be a terrifying vision of a world coming to grips with a near Earth-ending event — a book that would flip established expectations of what Whitehead was capable of as a writer on their heads.

Set in an unspecified amount of time in the future, in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by a virus that turned much of the world’s population into zombies, Zone One follows three “sweepers” — survivors whose job is to eliminate any remaining zombies — as they patrol across a decimated New York City for three days. As the book progresses, we learn more about their experiences, how they managed to survive, and what they dream of as the world strives to recover.

With Zone One, Whitehead’s goal was to channel his childhood love of authors like Stephen King and Isaac Asmiov as he wrote his own piece of genre fiction — one that could actually stand with the best “true literary works” of the day. Speaking with The Guardian, Whitehead said, “It was those guys who made me want to write in the first place, so it made sense to me that I would eventually do a horror novel, even if it seems strange going from a coming-of-age story like my last novel, Sag Harbor, to a zombie apocalypse. Zombies are a great rhetorical prop to talk about people and paranoia, and they are a good vehicle for my misanthropy.”

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The Underground Railroad (2016)

Already having established himself as a critical darling in literary circles, Whitehead’s next book would see him enter the mainstream, selling more copies than ever before, taking home both a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and seeing his work adapted for film for the very first time.

Set in the Southern United States during the 1800’s, The Underground Railroad follows two Black slaves, Cora and Caesar, as they escape from a Georgia plantation using a fictionalized version of the historic Underground Railroad — one complete with actual railways, railcars, and train stations. Pursued by a slave catcher named Ridgeway, Cora and Caesar must navigate the railroad, with each stop serving as an entry into a unique world filled with intrigue, beauty, and danger.

Initially reluctant to immerse himself in the history of slavery, and the pain inflicted on slaves in 19th century America, Whitehead was finally inspired to tell this story to answer a simple, childhood question. As he related to NPR, “I was pretty reluctant to immerse myself into that history. It took 16 years for me to finish the book. I first had the idea in the year 2000, and I was finishing up a long book called John Henry Days, which had a lot of research. And I was just sort of, you know, getting up from a nap or something (laughter) and thought, ‘You know, what if the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad?’ You know, I think when you're a kid and you first hear about it in school or whatever, you imagine a literal subway beneath the earth. And then you find out that it's not a literal subway, and you get a bit upset. And so the book took off from that childhood notion.”

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Harlem Shuffle (2021)

Whitehead’s latest book, just released in September, is a sweeping crime epic that’s already heralded as one of Whitehead’s greatest works, debuting at #3 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

The book follows Ray Carney, who lives an upstanding, straightforward life as a furniture salesman in Manhattan with his wife, Elizabeth. While Carney’s family was heavily involved in crime, he has resolved to live a decent life, only hustling as a fence for stolen goods to expand his own showroom. But when his cousin, Freddie, volunteers Carney as a fence for a heist that goes terribly wrong, Carney is drawn into the world of crime he’s mostly steered clear of, and must reconcile the criminal, devoted husband, and businessman sides of himself.

Written in small chunks over several years, and finally completed while Whitehead was isolated at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Harlem Shuffle continues his recurring themes of race, social class, and power. Carney doesn’t really want to be a criminal — he’s just taking the only options he feels he has to rise above his criminal heritage. In relating that experience, Whitehead explained to Vulture that, “I was trying to capture the dynamism of the city. Harlem — before the Great Migration, before the influx of Caribbean immigrants in the ’20s — is a neighborhood of German, Italian, Irish, and Jewish people from all over the Earth. They came to America with nothing, and they entered the middle class and moved away, and then the next group came in. Maybe that’s Black Americans from the South, maybe it’s Black folks from Barbados and the West Indies, like my mom, like my grandmother was. She came through Ellis Island in the ’20s from Barbados. Harlem stays the same, but behind all that, the population in the townhouses, the people who own the streets and the buildings, is always turning. I definitely wanted to capture that. Then, of course, people rise up and down the economic ladder. Carney rises, and the people in Dumas Club have entered into the upper-middle class. It’s precarious because that’s the nature of Black success.”

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Crook Manifesto (2023)

It’s 1971. Trash piles up on the streets, crime is at an all-time high, the city is careening towards bankruptcy, and a shooting war has broken out between the NYPD and the Black Liberation Army. Amidst this collective nervous breakdown furniture store owner and ex-fence Ray Carney tries to keep his head down and his business thriving. His days moving stolen goods around the city are over. It’s strictly the straight-and-narrow for him — until he needs Jackson 5 tickets for his daughter May and he decides to hit up his old police contact Munson, fixer extraordinaire. But Munson has his own favors to ask of Carney and staying out of the game gets a lot more complicated – and deadly.

1973. The counter-culture has created a new generation, the old ways are being overthrown, but there is one constant, Pepper, Carney’s endearingly violent partner in crime. It’s getting harder to put together a reliable crew for hijackings, heists, and assorted felonies, so Pepper takes on a side gig doing security on a Blaxploitation shoot in Harlem. He finds himself in a freaky world of Hollywood stars, up-and-coming comedians, and celebrity drug dealers, in addition to the usual cast of hustlers, mobsters, and hit men. These adversaries underestimate the seasoned crook – to their regret.

1976. Harlem is burning, block by block, while the whole country is gearing up for Bicentennial celebrations. Carney is trying to come up with a July 4th ad he can live with. ("Two Hundred Years of Getting Away with It!"), while his wife Elizabeth is campaigning for her childhood friend, the former assistant D.A and rising politician Alexander Oakes. When a fire severely injures one of Carney’s tenants, he enlists Pepper to look into who may be behind it. Our crooked duo have to battle their way through a crumbling metropolis run by the shady, the violent, and the utterly corrupted.

CROOK MANIFESTO is a darkly funny tale of a city under siege, but also a sneakily searching portrait of the meaning of family. Colson Whitehead’s kaleidoscopic portrait of Harlem is sure to stand as one of the all-time great evocations of a place and a time.

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Women's History Selection - 2024

The Sewing Girl's Tale  by John Wood Sweet

A rape trial, and a legal travesty in 1793, John Wood Sweet's "The Sewing Girl's Tale" tells the story of an unusual prosecution in 18th-century New York -- and it's contemporary relevance. In this incisive historical investigation, Sweet, a history professor at the University of North Carolina and former director of its program in sexuality studies, reconstructs a memorable story that reveals the virulent anti-feminism embedded in American democracy.   Read more...    

Published in 2022. New York Times - Editor's Choice; Bancroft Prize Winner; Parkman Prize Winner; James Bradford Best Biography Prize Winner; Gotham Book Prize Winner; Langum Prize in American Legal History Winner; New York City Book Award Winner; Book of the Year - Journal of the American Revolution. 


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John Wood Sweet

About John

I’m an American historian and former director of UNC Chapel Hill's Program in Sexuality Studies—and, for that matter, former newspaper delivery boy, gardener, library page, pizza maker, park ranger, gas station attendant, owner of a bee-keeping supply start-up, and tourguide at the house in which Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women.

As an historian, I've spent my career trying to understand the lives of people in early American history who weren’t well known at the time and didn’t leave much of a trace in the surviving documentary record. Putting them at the center of the story changes our understanding of the past—and the present.

In writing the Sewing Girl’s Tale, which focuses on a survivor of a sexual assault, it was especially important to keep her at the center of the story—and to make it clear that her story began long before the assault and continued long afterwards. Ultimately, I wanted to know: What was life in the aftermath of the American Revolution like—not for some Founding Father—but for an ordinary young woman, a seventeen-year-old seamstress, struggling to make her way in a world full of possibility and danger.


A more formal academic bio

John Wood Sweet is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and former director of UNC’s Program in Sexuality Studies. He graduated from Amherst College (summa cum laude) and earned his Ph.D. in History at Princeton University. His first book, Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, was a finalist for the Frederick Douglass Prize. He has served as a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, and his work has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, the National Humanities Center, the Institute for Arts and Humanities at UNC, the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale, the McNeil Center at Penn, and the Center for Global Studies in Culture, Power, and History at Johns Hopkins.  He lives in Chapel Hill with his husband, son, daughter, and a new baby.


John's search for Lanah Sawyer's story

For many years I thought I understood Lanah Sawyer’s story. Three decades ago, when I was working on my Ph.D. in history, one of my professors, the celebrated women’s historian Christine Stansell, introduced me to William Wyche’s Report of the Trial of Harry Bedlow, for the Rape of Lanah Sawyer (New York, 1793)—the first published report of an American rape trial.  (To read it, click here.)

It was a gripping courtroom drama—by turns anguishing, exciting, and infuriating.  Even then, the parallels between Lanah Sawyer’s case and the enduring dynamics of date rape were obvious and haunting. Two of my fellow graduate students, Marybeth Hamilton and Sharon Block, published brilliant studies of the case in light of broader historical patterns. So, when I began teaching I often used the case to help students explore the historical roots of modern rape culture.

Then, about twelve years ago, a graduate student I was working with, L. Maren Wood, shared a reference she had discovered in a New York newspaper, five years after the rape trial.  It was a summary of an affidavit—in which Lanah Sawyer retracted her charge of rape.  Curious, I tracked down the full version of the purported retraction, which had been published in a newspaper in, of all places, Poughkeepsie.  It threw my assumptions about the case into doubt.  And it made it clear that the story didn’t end with the rape trial: it went on for years afterwards and was much more complex than I had imagined.

Curious, I set aside the book I was working on at the time.  What actually had happened?  I wanted to know.  What really was Lanah Sawyer’s story? 

I spent more than a decade searching out evidence—long lost trial minutes; records of every sexual assault prosecutions in Manhattan for almost a century and dozens of civil lawsuits for seduction; contemporary newspapers, letters, diaries, account books, novels, land records, maps, watercolors, engravings, portraits, silverware, and even a carriage; sewing cases, samplers, dresses, undergarments, and accessories (including bum rolls)—piecing together what I discovered, and puzzling over what it all added up to.

The result is this book: The Sewing Girl’s Tale.


1 |  What about this book seems modern to you? Which characters? Are there moments when you
think, “That would happen today, too!”
2 |  How does the book’s description of the time period help set the mood for the story? Did any of the
descriptions surprise you?
3 |  The prologue opens with seventeen-year-old Lanah Sawyer in the back room of a brothel on the
morning after a life-changing event. The next several chapters explain how she got to that point.
Did the way the story unfolds—with some things left ambiguous for a while—pull you in?
4 |  How would you describe Lanah Sawyer? Were there moments when you identified with her? Or not?
5 |  At the opening of the book, romantic love is described as both alluring and dangerous. What made
romance so dangerous at that time, especially for young women? Are things different now?
6 |  How do you understand Lanah’s interest in “lawyer Smith”? How did he go about making her
7 |   What did you think of Mother Carey? Did you want to like her?
8 |  Today, most sexual assaults involving acquaintances are never publicly reported. Why do you think
Lanah refused to remain silent? How did she persuade men in positions of power to move 
forward with her case?
9 |  Double standards shaped the trial. The defense lawyers both attacked Lanah’s good reputation—
and embraced Bedlow’s bad reputation. Huh?
10 |  At every turn, Lanah Sawyer faced sexual “ruin”—in the rape trial, in the seduction suit, in
Bedlow’s efforts to rewrite her story. How different was this culture of sexual shaming from our own?
11 |  Were you surprised that the newspapers, which did little local reporting or fact-checking,
featured such bitter debates and efforts by individuals to reframe the truth?  Does that remind
you of the problem of truth in mass media today?
12 |   Chapter 9, “Outrage,” describes how various individuals and groups took on Lanah’s story—and
made it their own. In your view, when does advocacy blur into exploitation?
13 |   When you read about Lanah Sawyer’s suicide attempt, how did you respond? What do you
imagine she was responding to?
14 |   Even today, the criminal justice system struggles to hold acquaintance rapists accountable. In
Chapter 10, “Seduction,” the civil law of seduction proved a powerful alternative. Should we
revive it?
15 |  In Chapter 11, “Recovery,” we learn that Henry Bedlow’s parents let him languish in debtors’s
prison for almost two years. Do you think he ever felt that what he had done was wrong?
16 |  Were you surprised by Alexander Hamilton’s role in this case?
17 |  At the end of the book, when Lanah Sawyer was twenty-two, she disappears from view. Do you
have thoughts about how her story might have turned out? What do you hope—or fear—for her?
18 |  If Lanah had a daughter, what do you imagine she might have told her about her experience?
What might she have wanted her daughter to know?
19 |  What questions did this book leave you with? What struck you as most surprising or shocking?
Was there something that you felt wasn’t resolved? Or something that will stay with you?
20 |  Ultimately, is The Sewing Girl’s Tale a tragedy, or a story of triumph against the odds?


with John Wood Sweet

Crafting this narrative from the existing historical record required an enormous amount of research and detective work. Can you describe your research process, as well as the way you approached weaving these details into a cohesive story?

John Wood Sweet: In this book, I explore the momentous period after the American Revolution not through the eyes of the so-called Founding Fathers but rather through the eyes of an ordinary New Yorker: a seventeen-year-old seamstress named Lanah Sawyer. Today, most people have never heard of her. And if she hadn’t responded to a sexual assault in a really unusual way, she might have left no trace at all. For historians, accessing the perspectives of ordinary people—working people, women, youths—is notoriously difficult. It takes perseverance and patience, and luck. But I’ve spent my entire career trying to tell stories that others used to say could not be told.

For The Sewing Girl’s Tale, I wanted to do more than figure out what actually happened. I wanted readers to be able to visualize the city Lanah Sawyer inhabited, to understand how her world worked, and to appreciate the challenges she faced, her fateful decisions, her courage, her heartbreak.

What emerged was a story not from the top down but from the bottom up: a story of a young woman looking to make her own way in a city full of possibility and danger; a story of working men fed up with being disparaged and dismissed; and a story of early feminists making bold new arguments about human rights at a time when the only way most single women could earn a living wage was by working as a prostitute.

What was the most surprising detail you uncovered while researching the book?

JWS: I’ve spent my career studying and teaching early American history, but this project kept throwing me for a loop.

I was surprised by what I learned about Lanah Sawyer’s family. I was surprised by the big business of prostitution. I was surprised by the disparity between how romance was idealized in the novels of the day—and how courtship actually worked in real life. I was surprised by the audacity of the defense lawyers during the rape trial and by their blatant efforts to rewrite the law. I was surprised by the public response to the jury verdict–which included riots in the streets. I was surprised by the forceful feminists who raised their voices to call out sexual double standards. I was surprised that Lanah Sawyer ended up securing meaningful legal recourse. I was surprised that the perpetrator, Henry Bedlow, ended up in debtors’ prison. I was surprised by the scurrilous tactics employed by his attorney, Alexander Hamilton.

And, call me naive, but I was surprised every time I caught someone lying.

What was most surprising, in the end, was that the more I learned about the dynamics of sexual assault today, the more modern and tragic this story became. So much of this story could have taken place on a college campus today. We still live in a startlingly similar culture of sexual predation and impunity. This immediacy is part of what makes Lanah Sawyer’s story so inspiring and gut-wrenching.

This story feels unsettling and disorienting now, I think, because in this time so long ago, in this case, so much of our modern gender system and legal culture were being created.

Alexander Hamilton plays a significant role in this account. How do you expect readers will react to the information about him you’ve revealed here? In your eyes, does his role in the case complicate or alter his legacy? Are his actions here consistent with other historical depictions of him?

JWS: In The Sewing Girl’s Tale, we see Alexander Hamilton just after his stint as secretary of the treasury, back in New York, working as a practicing attorney—and what we see is pretty ugly. At a crucial turning point in this story, Hamilton was hired by the family of the perpetrator, Henry Bedlow, to get him out of a serious pickle. And, as an attorney, Hamilton was clearly smart and effective. But the methods he used in this case were, frankly, fraudulent and cruel.

Anyone familiar with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical or Ron Chernow’s engrossing biography knows that Hamilton was involved in a scandal called the Reynolds Affair—involving sex and crime, money and secrets, betrayal and fraud. Hamilton’s work for Henry Bedlow puts that scandal in a new light. Ultimately, I think in their willingness to defend their own honor at any cost either to themselves or others, Hamilton and Bedlow fed each other’s darkest impulses.

In the book’s appendix, you mention several experts on clothing and sewing in the Early Republic who offered insight as you pieced together Lanah’s story. How did they add to your understanding of what Lanah experienced?

JWS: The gown Lanah Sawyer wore on the evening she was raped is an example of how consulting with experts opened my eyes and led to stunning revelations. During the trial, the dress was the only piece of forensic evidence. The prosecution used it to support Lanah’s testimony about how Bedlow had torn it during the assault and how, the next morning, she had sewn it back together.

At first, I was simply curious about what the gown looked like. But this was a period of transition in women’s fashion and there was only so far published guides could get me, so I turned to a number of leading experts for help.

During one meeting, Linda Baumgarten, the textile curator at Colonial Williamsburg, patiently answered my questions. Then she offered two observations.

First, she said, there was no need for Henry Bedlow to remove Lanah’s gown if intercourse had been his only goal: women in this period did not wear drawers, so he could have just pulled up her skirts. The fact that he wanted Lanah naked says something about his sexual aim.

Second, Baumgarten pointed out, the fact that the gown was torn supported Lanah’s account of a violent struggle. Clothing was expensive; she was probably proud of this gown. If she had removed it voluntarily, she would have been careful. The damage indicates that it was removed against her will.

So, I started out looking for a simple description and ended up with two powerful insights into the very nature of the assault.

So much has changed over the last two centuries. Why is this story still relevant?

JWS: I think we all read stories for a variety of reasons: to get lost in a narrative, to learn about important issues, to cultivate empathy, to make sense of our world, and, most profoundly, to change the way we think and feel.

I have worked on this project for more than ten years, trying to learn about her life, her experiences, her reactions. But I didn’t anticipate the ways it would change me.

Early on, I noticed that at the heart of this project was an uncanny kind of double-vision. At every turn, as I struggled to bring Lanah Sawyer’s long lost world into focus, I saw, at the same moment, the world we inhabit today. In Lanah Sawyer, I see all of the friends, relatives, acquaintances, co-workers, and students who have shared their own stories with me. And I see moments in my own life.

For me, the process of keeping Lanah’s story always in focus, always at the center, for so long has made this project feel intimate and intense and transformative. It has encouraged me to honor my own experience, to recognize moments in my own life that I usually keep compartmentalized and tend to dismiss.

We live with so much exploitation and harassment, so much shame and silence. There is triumph in this story as well as tragedy, and there is also a kind of solace. So maybe this book is an invitation to us all to take our own lives seriously, to trust in ourselves.

What insights do you hope modern readers glean from Lanah’s story? How does her story help us to understand today’s criminal justice system and culture around sexual violence?

JWS: Lanah Sawyer’s story shows the importance of the modern distinction between fear of “stranger danger” and the realities of acquaintance rape—a distinction that this rape trial helped create.

Her story opens with her walking down Broadway: she’s harassed by a group of foreign men but a seemingly gallant “gentleman” steps in to rescue her. He insinuates himself into her confidence and entices her out on a date. Only when it’s too late does she realize that her “fine new beau”—not the strangers in the street—was the real threat.

Today it’s much the same: our fear of strangers helps disguise the fact that most sexual assaults are perpetrated by acquaintances: a cousin, a boss, a teacher, a guy at a party.

During the rape trial, the defense lawyers seized on earlier legal commentaries and exaggerated their implications. Their goal was to redefine rape in terms of physical violence rather than consent and to convince the jury that Lanah Sawyer wasn’t someone who mattered.

The result was to characterize “real” (or stranger) rape as a violent, surprise assault perpetrated by a man of lower social standing—a cultural script powerfully weaponized by American white supremacists against Black men.

Conversely, whatever an acquaintance might do—whatever a date like Henry Bedlow might do—couldn’t be rape. In such scenarios the means of coercion involve so much more than physical force: assailants target victims, misdirect and isolate them to render them vulnerable, leverage their social authority, and exploit their victim’s confusion, fear, and sexual shame. Victims typically don’t report such crimes—in part because they have been rendered agonizingly difficult to prosecute.

Lanah’s story illuminates how this bifurcation of stranger/acquaintance rape came into being—and why it matters.

This is, of course, first and foremost a book about misogyny and violence toward women, but it is also more broadly a book about class. Can you summarize the impact class politics had on the case itself as well as the public response to it?

JWS: In the 1790s, the city of New York was at the forefront of a titanic struggle over the destiny of the American republic.

When Lanah Sawyer faced off against Henry Bedlow in court, many saw it as part of a larger conflict between champions of democracy and defenders of aristocracy. At the time, many of the Founding Fathers considered democracy a dangerous idea; they argued that elite men should run the country and everyone else should know their place. But by 1793, the French Revolution had presented a much more radical vision of equality—which some saw as an inspiration and others as a nightmare.

This story was set in motion by a miscalculation on Henry Bedlow’s part. He clearly assumed that he could use his elite status to attract the attention of Lanah Sawyer and that she, given her modest social standing, wouldn’t dare stand up to him. But she did.

During the trial, Bedlow’s lawyers also used Lanah’s class status to disparage and dismiss her. “What else,” one of them sneered, “did she imagine a gentleman like him wanted with a sewing girl like her?” They seemed to judge the jury correctly. But no one could have anticipated that their elitism and scorn would provoke such widespread outrage.

And so this case became not just about women and their rights but also about working men and their right to dignity, and respect, and justice.

Even as justice is sought, Lanah is never granted much agency; it is her stepfather who pursues charges on her behalf. Do you think Lanah was in agreement with her stepfather throughout the process? Do you expect that, if she’d had legal autonomy to do so, she would have pursued the same charges herself?

JWS: I think that when Henry Bedlow decided to target Lanah Sawyer he underestimated not just her but also her family. And I think he assumed that her working-class stepfather wouldn’t have the gumption, or the resources, to take on a rich and well-connected man like himself. But he was wrong. Lanah’s stepfather, John Callanan, turned out to be a man of remarkable grit, determination, and legal savvy.

At the same time, Callanan was not simply Lanah’s ally. After she was assaulted, Lanah desperately wanted to go home but was afraid that he would beat her without listening to what had happened. And it’s clear that her fear was well-founded. In the end, she managed her return home in a way that did get him to listen to her story and got him on her side. And he turned out to be a remarkably effective champion.

This same process was repeated over and over. Time and again she had to win over potential allies. And time and again she did. So I think she did exercise a lot of agency in shaping how her story unfolded. At the same time, alliances always involve some loss of control.

And there’s a fine line between alliance and appropriation. I think Lanah always faced the danger that others might not just take on her cause but also take it over.

Lanah is a compelling and important historical figure. Yet—despite the explosive national dialogue in recent years around sexual violence and the way it’s addressed in the legal system—her story has remained largely unknown. Why do you think this is?

JWS: First, in American history, working-class heroes like Lanah Sawyer are rarely remembered.

To me what is most extraordinary is that we can recover as much of her story as we can—because she, unlike most survivors of sexual assault then and now, came forward, pressed charges, and made her story so compelling that one of the spectators at the trial decided it was worth publishing a detailed account of the proceedings. It was the first such report of a rape trial in American history. Without it we would know little more than Lanah Sawyer’s name.

Of course there is so much we don’t know—she didn’t leave behind a portrait that would tell us what she looked like; she didn’t leave behind letters that tell us something of her inner emotional turmoil. In part that was because of her age and her class and her gender. But it was also, clearly, because she didn’t seek the spotlight.

At the same time, one of the most troubling aspects of rape culture then, as now, is that the cases that attracted public attention were almost always those that involved elite men. “Life of a citizen is in the hands of a woman,” cried one of Henry Bedlow’s attorneys. As though a rapist’s social standing should protect him from consequences. As though a woman didn’t deserve legal recourse.

Recently, the philosopher Kate Mann described this phenomenon as “himpathy.” Lanah Sawyer’s story is an opportunity to pause and reflect.

Why do we focus so much on what elite male perpetrators stand to lose if they are held to account—rather than on what their victims have already lost? How does a sexual assault, how does sexual harassment in the workplace, change a woman’s life? We know remarkably little about those stories.

Podcasts with John Wood Sweet

about The Sewing Girl's Tale



Liz Covart is a legendary podcaster and an historian. Her show, Ben Franklin’s World, features the most interesting new work in the history of colonial and Revolutionary America. 

Listen to her conversation with John about The Sewing Girl's Tale, here.





Maureen Taylor is known as the Photo Detective for her skill at using visual evidence and historical documentation to tell powerful stories about the past. Her conversation with John about The Sewing Girl’s Tale is fun and illuminating.

Listen to the podcast here.





Roxanne Coady and John had a terrific exchange about The Sewing Girl’s Tale for her podcast, Just the Right Book!  Her podcast showcases the best new non-fiction.

Check out her interview with John here.






Discover the data and documents that John Sweet used when researching “The Sewing Girl’s Tale" --The laws of rape and seduction, and the world of New York City in the era of the American Revolution.

Click the linked images below to get started.






Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Selection - 2024

Tastes Like War  by Grace M. Cho

Part food memoir, part sociological investigation, Tastes Like War is a hybrid text about a daughter’s search through intimate and global history for the roots of her mother’s schizophrenia. In her mother’s final years, Grace learned to cook dishes from her mother’s childhood in order to invite the past into the present, and to hold space for her mother’s multiple voices at the table. And through careful listening over these shared meals, Grace discovered not only the things that broke the brilliant, complicated woman who raised her—but also the things that kept her alive. Read more…    

Published in 2021. Winner of the 2022 Asian/Pacific American Award in Literature; Finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction; A TIME and NPR Best Book of the Year in 2021

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Grace M. Cho

About me

My work sits at the crossroads of creative nonfiction and interdisciplinary scholarship, exploring the ways in which residues of state violence and historical trauma permeate the intimate spaces of the here and now. As a sociologist, I approach storytelling as an opportunity to broaden the lens through which readers see personal experience. I teach full time as a professor of sociology, food studies, gender studies, critical criminology, and disability studies at the City University of New York.

Grace M. Cho is Associate Professor of Sociology at the College of Staten Island. She received a PhD in Sociology and Women’s Studies from the CUNY Graduate Center and an MEd from Harvard School of Education. Her work crosses disciplinary boundaries and seeks to engage popular audiences. From 2005 to 2007 she was a contributing performance artist for Still Present Pasts: Korean Americans and the Forgotten War, a collaborative art project based on the oral histories of Korean War survivors and their children. Her participation in Still Present Pasts influenced the form and content of her first book, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy and the Forgotten War (University of Minnesota, 2008) which combined fiction, performance, autoethnography and sociological research. It won a 2010 book award from the American Sociological Association for its innovative methodology. Her second book, Tastes Like War, was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the winner of the 2022 Asian Pacific American Literature Award for Adult Nonfiction. Prior to her life in academia, Grace was a Head Start director in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn.


In 'Tastes Like War,' a daughter reckons with her mother's schizophrenia

HEARD ON Fresh Air By 

1|  In what ways does the significance of the title, Tastes Like War, show up throughout the book?

2| Tastes Like War starts in 1976 and ends in 2008. The memoir jumps through time, going between Cho’s childhood, her adolescent years, her young adulthood, and the years before her mother died. How does this structure influence the way we read the story? How does it help Cho tell her story?

3|  In the prologue, Cho writes that she has had “at least three mothers” (2) in her life. In what ways did Cho’s mother change throughout her life? How did each of these different versions of the same woman affect Cho as she grew up?

4|  What are the stigmas surrounding schizophrenia? What are the ways you have witnessed schizophrenia portrayed in the media? How do you think the author challenges these portrayals in Tastes Like War?


5|  Grace M. Cho mentions several dishes that were important to her mother, and the memories she associates with them. What were these dishes? How do their significance within her own memory shape her experience eating them?

6|  How does Tastes Like War help us to rethink scholarship as an avenue for exploring personal/family history?

7|  What is the role of grief/mourning and survival/pride/celebration in this work?

8|  In what ways is Grace M Cho's Tastes Like War a stunning example of feminist research methodology?

9|  How does Cho's Tastes Like War refuse the all-too-common memoir practice of attempting to understand the personal without locating individual lives, individual traumas in the social?

10|  How might an awareness of trauma transform our understanding of social interactions and/or society itself?

Your book examines complicated subjects — colonialism, mental health, sexual exploitation, racism, and the generational impacts of militarism — and yet it’s filled with joy, warmth, and humanity. What was your aim in writing this memoir?
Grace M. Cho: My mother suddenly died at the age of 66 of an unknown cause. It was so devastating that writing was a way of processing memories and questions that came up in the wake of her death. In my grief, I recovered those memories and started writing them down so I wouldn’t forget them. This new story emerged for me about who my mother was and what my relationship was to her. Initially, I was only writing the happier, joyful memories and the memories of food. I set out to write a food memoir, but as I was working, I started to add in the layers of colonial history, US imperialism, xenophobia, and all the things that broke her down to create the mother of my adolescence who was extremely paranoid and had a lot of psychic pain.
You write about the relationship between your Korean mother and your American father and the lingering questions you had about how they met outside a US naval base in Busan. You explore the nature of their early relationship and how it evolved. This brings up the question of “camptown” culture outside US military bases, of coerced sex work, and the uneven nature of international relationships in a militarized environment.
GC: As you read in the book, it was kept secret from me until right before I was about to turn 23. I was the only person in my family who didn’t know about it. So that was a traumatic experience for me to process… to take in all I had learned that my mom had been a sex worker for US personnel in South Korea.
Retrospectively, I started to see that the power imbalance between my parents was sort of an effect of that larger geopolitical relationship—that my mother was very isolated in the town where I grew up. It was my father’s hometown. He was well-respected as a native of that town, as a white man. My mom was always considered the foreigner.
One conversation I had with my mom was really surprising to me because I was really afraid of what she would think of my writing something related to her past, and she was very supportive of it. I understood that to mean that she was ready to let go of that shame and move forward.
A major theme in your book is the causes and effects of schizophrenia on your mother and, by extension, the rest of your family. Today mental health is in the news daily and has become a common topic of discussion, but it wasn’t like that in the 1970s and 80s, right? You wrote that at that time, the closest term for mental illness in Korean was something like a “pained spirit.”
GC: I think the clinical language does exist in Korea, but it’s not in common use. I was advised by Korean friends that the way I should put it was that “her spirit hurt.” That in itself was really interesting, and I’ve continued to think about how here in the US, we think of mental illness as a disease of the brain, like a chemical imbalance, whereas from a Korean cultural perspective, it is an illness of the spirit.
I think one of the problems with our mental healthcare system is that we don’t broaden that perspective enough to think about spiritual, social, even psychological. So much of mental healthcare in the US gets reduced to drug treatment. I do think things have changed. As you said, people are much more open about talking about their diagnosis, but I think the stigma for people that have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or any kind of psychosis remains. That group of people continues to be some of the most marginalized in our society.
You wrote that when she did start to get treatment, she was getting medication, but it was as if she swapped out schizophrenia for a new different illness.
GC: When we think about voices, especially when I was growing up and my mom first started seeing a psychiatrist, the conventional wisdom about those voices — and I think this is still dominant today — is that they are just a symptom of schizophrenia, they don’t necessarily mean anything. The goal is to make them disappear with medication, whereas there are other approaches that don’t treat voices that way. The voices come from some place. They might be a remnant of trauma. It might be the voice of someone who had been abusive in the past. In the case of my mom, sometimes the voices would say things about a family history or Korean history that were clues for me to investigate. I think that there’s something to be gained from thinking about those voices as part of the person and their life history.
Another central subject of your book is race, racism, and your reflections on growing up as a biracial girl in a small rural town in western Washington State in the 70s and 80s. How was your experience different from what biracial kids in America may experience today?
GC: I don’t know how easily I can generalize because I grew up in a place that was so specifically non-diverse. I don’t think that community has changed a whole lot since I left. It’s still majority white. The number of people of color have grown but only a little bit. I don’t know that I can compare it to the experience of my students now because I live and teach in New York City, where there’s a totally different racial landscape, and the majority of even my white students are very aware that racism is deeply embedded in our society and needs to be rooted out.
Of course, we’re seeing this huge surge in anti-Asian violence over the last couple of years. When you’re confronting racism, I don’t know how relevant it is to be biracial. My experience growing up was that it didn’t matter that I had a white American father. I was still seen as an Asian, as a foreigner.
I think we have made a lot of progress thinking about race and racism since the 70s and 80s, but because racism is so deeply embedded in our society — it’s what America is built upon, essentially — that until we recognize that and can remedy it, it’s going to keep coming back depending on the political climate [and] the specific cultural context so we can’t really think about progress in a straight line.
The title of your book, “Tastes like War,” was something your mother said to express her distaste for powdered milk. Can you talk about the meaning of this phrase?
GC: The meaning of her rejection of powdered milk was that it brought back this trauma from the war. It was like there is an underlying rationale for these small things that she did that can easily just be dismissed as a symptom of schizophrenia, but I wrote about how I saw those things as little acts of resistance from her. Ways of her rejecting larger power structures in whatever limited capacity she had.
The book’s title is very striking and really resonates, I think.
In food memoirs, usually, the association is with pleasant memories, the warm, fuzzy nurturing memories of your mother, your grandmother. That’s such a common trope, so I also wanted to explore the other side of that when the taste of something brings you back to a place where you think that you might not survive.
But on the other hand, you write about how food empowers your mother — when she is foraging at the beach for fish and seaweed and in the forest collecting fiddlehead ferns, mushrooms, and berries. And she turns this into a cottage industry while feeding her family.
GC: That was the time in her life that I identify as her high point because she had such tremendous capacity. The quantity of food that she foraged and cooked was really incredible, and she made a pretty good income from it too. I think she took a lot of pride in it. One of the observations I made in the book was how she was able to relate to this community that, in many ways, had rejected her by feeding them — to be in this magnanimous position of being the one to take care of these people who didn’t always take care of her.
You also describe the parties she hosted for your teachers, where she prepared a wonderful spread of dishes with Korean food and drinks, and how those gatherings became quite popular.
GC: Right. She knew how to use food as a kind of political advantage. She did not have a lot of formal education, but she knew that if she could invite people into her home and welcome them with a party and food, they would remember me, and they would remember us. It was building a relationship that was going to provide an advantage for her own family.

~ from:  Jon Letman, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, 


NOTE: The following information, taken directly from Medline Plus, should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Contact a health care provider if you have questions about your health.

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Looking for more books like Tastes Like War?

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

In this exquisite story of family, food, grief and endurance, Michelle Zauner proves herself far more than a dazzling singer, songwriter and guitarist. With humor and heart, she tells of growing up one of the few Asian American kids at her school in Eugene, Oregon; of struggling with her mother’s particular, high expectations of her; of a painful adolescence; of treasured months spent in her grandmother’s tiny apartment in Seoul, where she and her mother would bond, late at night, over heaping plates of food.

Koshersoul by Michael W. Twitty

Michael W. Twitty considers the marriage of two of the most distinctive culinary cultures in the world today: the foods and traditions of the African Atlantic and the global Jewish diaspora. To Twitty, the creation of African-Jewish cooking is a conversation of migrations and a dialogue of diasporas offering a rich background for inventive recipes and the people who create them. The question that most intrigues him is not just who makes the food, but how the food makes the people. Jews of Color are not outliers, Twitty contends, but significant and meaningful cultural creators in both Black and Jewish civilizations.


Fatty Fatty Boom Boom by Rabia Chaudry

Chaudry chronicles the dozens of times she tried and failed to achieve what she was told was her ideal weight. The truth is, though, she always loved food too much to hold a grudge against it. At once an ode to Pakistani cuisine, including Chaudry’s favorite recipes; a love letter to her Muslim family both here and in Lahore; and a courageously honest portrait of a woman grappling with a body that gets the job done but refuses to meet the expectations of others.

Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina

Elizabeth’s mother was working as a nightclub hostess on U.S.-occupied Okinawa when she met the American soldier who would become her husband. The language barrier and power imbalance that defined their early relationship followed them to the predominantly white, upstate New York suburb where they moved to raise their only daughter. Yet even though she felt almost no connection to her mother’s distant home, she also felt out of place among her peers. Decades later, Elizabeth comes to recognize the shame and self-loathing that haunt both her and her mother, and attempts a form of reconciliation, not only to come to terms with the embattled dynamics of her family but also to reckon with the injustices that reverberate throughout the history of Okinawa and its people.



Who can participate?
Bea's Book! is self-guided. You can participate individually, pair up with a friend, or form a group. It is open to Southwestern Illinois College students, faculty and staff as well as the community. Everyone is invited! 

How many books do I read?
You can read as many as you like. One to three award-winning books are selected each semester. Descriptions of each book are found on this page. 

How do I participate?
Review the book descriptions and determine which book(s) you'd like to read! You can request a free copy through the library's loan system (see the 'How to Get Book' TAB on this page). Book Club TABS contain discussion questions, author information and much more to enhance your experience! Participate individually, with a friend, or better yet - gather a group and discuss your thoughts together!

I want more information ..
Talk to a friendly librarian. We're excited to meet you!  Stop by anytime the library is open. Can't make it to the library?  Contact us via email with your questions - we'll be in touch soon!