Thursday, December 17, 2020

Nonfiction Review: White Trash

One of my book groups discussed White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg back in October. I ended up setting the book aside halfway through and finishing it for #NonfictionNovember, but that's not a reflection of the book. I learned a lot that was never taught in school and was riveted by this unique look at the history of poor whites in America.

The book begins by busting the myths of the U.S.'s original colonies that we all learned in history class: the staid, hard-working Pilgrims who came here seeking religious freedom and established a successful, class-less society. Instead, the author cites a wide variety of historical documents that show that the first settlers brought England's strict class society with them, with landed gentry given access to the property here and ships full of vagrants, criminals, homeless children, and other poor people sent here to provide labor for building and planting. Even before Africans were brought here in slave ships, the colonists had indentured servants (whose children were often also owned by the wealthy) and other kinds of unpaid labor--lots of different ways to have slaves without using the word. The book goes through each period of U.S. history, revealing what life was really like for poor whites and what leaders' attitudes were toward the lower class. It covers Revolutionary times and the Founding Fathers through the Civil War and the popularity of eugenics in the post-war years to modern times, when being a redneck became cool ala Mayberry, The Dukes of Hazzard, Honey Boo-Boo, and Duck Dynasty. I was put-off by the book's title at first, but I was shocked to learn that the term "white trash" was used as early as the 1600's (and quite literally), with even worse epitaphs in use in each era. Another surprise was that some of the more horrifying aspects of today's politics were evident as far back as Reconstruction. Comparing wealthy planters' self-interests and the role of poor whites in the Civil War era to today's politics, the author notes, "Today as well we have a large unbalanced electorate that is regularly convinced to vote against its collective self-interest."

Every chapter of this book was absolutely fascinating to me! I kept interrupting my husband's reading to tell him random, crazy facts I'd never heard before. I was an engaged student in school who hated my Social Studies/History classes; I found them so boring! But this history was captivating through every page. Her research was extensive, with more than 100 pages of notes and references at the back of the book to back up what she writes about and drawing upon historical documents, politics, media, popular culture, and more. Understanding this historical perspective in such depth not only helps us to understand what's come before but also what is happening right now, and the challenges facing the poor in the United States today. Whether politicians want to admit it or not, we are definitely not a class-less society. I was riveted by every page of this absorbing historical summary that should be required reading for today's Americans. Highly recommended and excellent discussion fodder for book groups.

460 pages, Viking

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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible. The sample is from the preface, connecting modern pop culture to oldest United States history - give it a listen & you'll be hooked!


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  1. I was like you in high school and really disliked history (oh, the irony that I became a history teacher!) and I think books like this would have made it much more interesting.

  2. I've heard that this is a good book, and it's time we stopped whitewashing (literally) history for our kids and taught them what actually happened and what we can learn from that less-than-pretty picture.

    1. Interesting that there are so many different perspectives to history - as the saying goes "History is written by the victors" (or something like that) - I think we are just now starting to hear some of those other perspectives.