Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Book Review--The Boys in the Bunkhouse

Willie Levi complained one day about a pain in his leg, in his knee, complained to his supervisor at the packing plant where Willie shackled live turkeys, upside down, into hangers that would carry them to the kill floor. Willie Levi told his super that his leg hurt, hurt bad, but the super told him to keep working because he wouldn’t have Willie slacking off, so he followed orders, kept working, kept on and kept on, just as he had for years, for decades.

Willie Levi is a looming presence in Dan Barry’s Boys in the Bunkhouse; he's a man gifted to talk to turkeys, a “turkey whisperer,” Barry calls him, because something in his voice calmed those birds as he delivered them to their deaths.

But Willie hurt his knee, he said, so when the whole story broke—how several dozen developmentally disabled adult men from Texas were working for scratch in an Iowa turkey plant, living in unimaginable filth, the social workers who freed Willie and his friends from the grievous exploitation they’d suffered asked him if he had any medical problems. Willie pointed at his leg, said it hurt. Immediately, someone took him to an urgent care facility in nearby Muscatine, where the diagnosis was simple but painful—Willie Levi had a broken kneecap he’d lived and worked with for far too long.

That Willie Levi story is one of hundreds New York Times reporter Dan Barry relates in a heart-rending compendium of stories, all of them concerning the “boys,” a bus full of men sent up north to Iowa from Texas to work packing plant jobs no one reading these words would do, men intellectually disabled, who lived in squalor unimaginable in rural Iowa.

Countless characters people these stories, not simply “the boys from the bunkhouse” either, although most of them, like Willie, are here. There are heroes, men and women—reporters and social workers—who went out of their way to free the men from their 21st century slavery. Some you'll meet are heroes, some are certainly not. Some didn’t care, didn’t act, kept their mouth shut when they should have spoken.

But there are no snarling villains. Dan Barry’s marvelous reporting doesn’t indict the plant or Louis Rich, doesn’t even damn T. H. Johnson, the Texas entrepreneur once universally applauded for creating jobs for men thought otherwise unemployable. For some time, what Johnson was up to created sterling benefits for the boys—jobs, spending money, a place in life. 

Neither does Barry lay a glove on Atalissa, the tiny dying Iowa town where people brought the boys into their love and care, danced with them and gave them a place in town celebrations, took them to church.

The story is surprising in many ways. You’ll be amazed at what Atalissa gave, but saddened to realize that all that giving was never enough. The Boys in the Bunkhouse is not simply an indictment of the horrors of life on a kill floor or some broadside against rural provincialism; its primary concern is examining our own longstanding instinct to look past people we’d rather not see.

The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland is a marvelous read. When you close the cover and put it down, it won't simply stay on the shelf; it's a sad reminder of Jesus's words that “the poor you have with you always.”

Nations and cultures can be judged, a friend of mine used to say, not by their GNP, but by how compassionately they care for their own less fortunate. Dan Barry’s wonderful book is a moving reminder of something so sadly easy to forget—what it really should mean to be human.

The Boys in the Bunkhouse is this year’s Sioux County’s "One Book, One County" selection.

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