Pit Bull: the Battle Over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey

In November of 2017, my girlfriend and I adopted a 4-month-old puppy. The reason she was up for adoption was a common refrain, here in the Quad Cities and throughout America. Her previous owners had to move, and the landlord of their new place didn’t allow “ferocious breeds.” Although neither Davenport nor Scott County have any breed-specific legislation (BSL) on the books – which is surprising given that Iowa in general is rather dog-unfriendly, having 91 towns and cities with BSL, by far the most of any state in America – that doesn’t prevent landlords or rental companies from having their own discriminatory dog policies.

I’m sure some of you balked at me referring to BSL as discrimination. If you did (and even if you didn’t!), I implore you to read Bronwen Dickey’s Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon. This thoroughly researched book had a lot to teach me, and I’ve been an animal lover and advocate my entire life. But Dickey is not a pit bull partisan interested solely in proselytizing. Her work is backed up with data and interviews, and she makes sure to provide plenty of perspectives. Most importantly, she is deeply humanistic, never losing sight of how people affect and are affected by their canine companions.

While BSL can impact several different breeds, such as Rottweilers and Dobermans, pit bulls are by far the primary target (all 91 instances of BSL in Iowa target pit bulls; only 15 mention other breeds). Dickey manages to problematize this with one simple fact: “pit bull” isn’t actually a breed! It’s actually a dog type consisting of (depending on who you ask) four to five breeds: American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and American Bulldog. Furthermore, mixed-breed dogs and dogs of unknown pedigree that happen to share any similarities with these breeds – head size, body shape, short coat, etc. – get labeled as pit bulls by shelters and veterinarians. However, looks can be deceiving, and this is especially true when it comes to dogs. Dickey illustrates, with photographs and scientific research, how mixed breed dogs of known parentage often look nothing like either of their parents.

It comes as no surprise, then, when Dickey shows us that even people who work with dogs for a living have a less than stellar accuracy rate when it comes to identifying breeds. Dickey reports on numerous studies in the book. “After collecting cheek swabs from twenty mixed-breed dogs at four California shelters, [the authors of the study] asked a number of shelter workers to look at each dog and guess its breed(s). The shelter workers’ visual guesses – that is, the breeds they would have written on the dogs’ kennel cards and medical paperwork – did not match the animals DNA results 87.5 percent of the time” (pgs. 57-58, emphasis mine). In a follow-up study, the scientists showed video clips of twenty mixed-breed dogs to 900 subjects who worked in dog-related jobs – such as vets, trainers, groomers, shelter works, and animal control officers – and asked the subjects to identify which breeds were present in the dogs. The results were less than inspiring (pg. 58):

For only seven of the twenty dogs did more than half of the respondents agree on the most prominent breed. Interestingly, the predominant breed they chose did not show up at all in the DNA of three of those seven animals. Subsequent research confirmed this pattern. After looking at photographs of 120 mixed-breed dogs, shelter workers mislabeled 55 as being “pit bull mixes,” while missing 5 that actually were.

The troubling aspect is not that humans, even experts, are fallible – we don’t need a scientific study to tell us that – but rather that legislation that profoundly impacts peoples’ lives is being passed and enforced based solely on unscientific and unreliable methodology.

As such, it’s not just dogs that are discriminated against by BSL. Dickey traces how pit bulls, once beloved American icons who lived in the White House and starred in The Little Rascals, have come to be viewed as “lower class” dogs that are strongly associated with people of color. In light of this fact, it’s easy to see how BSL is just another aspect of systemic, institutional racism. It may be illegal to deny someone housing for being black or Latino, but not for being a pit bull owner – many of whom are, in fact, black or Latino. The predominance of pit bull prejudice is problematic because it becomes self-perpetuating. When enough legislation is passed, it becomes hegemonic, taken as a matter of fact. As Dickey masterfully shows in her book, however, the facts are a lot less clear than the talking heads would have you believe. It’s a deeply political issue, and as such should be approached rationally. Right now, the matter is murky with myth and prejudice; Pit Bull book goes a long way to dispelling the fog of superstition with its clear-headed, materialist, evidence-based approach.

Anecdotally, our puppy – Doobie, the first pit bull either of us had ever taken care of – has grown into such a gentle, loving dog that when we saw another pit bull puppy at the humane society, we couldn’t help but adopt her, too (despite having no plans for a second dog). Doobie’s younger sister, Sigourney, despite being even bigger than Doob, is somehow even less deserving of her “ferocious” appellation. In fact, she’s an awkward, gangly, 60 pound canine that thinks she’s a lapdog. The only thing these girls do aggressively is love, play, and goof off (although they have taken over our futon).

 

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Richardson

In 1936 Cussy Mary Carter is the “Book Woman”, working as a librarian with the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project. She brings books, friendship and news of the outside world to isolated families in remote parts of the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. Cussy is also one of the last of the blue people of Kentucky, people who’s skin appears blue, a trait that makes her stand out when she wants to blend in.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Richardson follows Cussy as she makes her way through a difficult life. It is books and the love of reading that keeps her going and bringing books to her patrons that makes her happy. Her work with the Kentucky Pack Horse Library brings her a lot of satisfaction, but it is a difficult and often dangerous job, especially for a woman alone in the wilderness. The trails are rough and often unpassable, many of the country people distrust anything to do with the government and actively discourage her or turn her away. Some refuse to talk to her because of her color (having her leave their books on the porch). The Pack Library has to make-do with cast-offs from other libraries with sadly worn and out-dated material. Yet Cussy treats everyone with kindness and compassion and slowly (some) people begin to accept her.

Now, if you read “people with blue skin” and thought “science fiction” or “Avatar” and think this book isn’t for you, think again! The blue-skinned people of Kentucky are real, their skin color caused by a very rare genetic condition called methemoglobinemia that causes their skin to appear blue. They are descended from a man who moved to the Troublesome Creek area of Kentucky in 1820. Because of the remoteness and isolation, the people often intermarried, passing the blue color on to their children. Today it is easy to mask the blue skin color (they are perfectly healthy otherwise) but in 1936, superstition against anyone with blue skin causes them to isolate themselves. They are considered “coloreds” and in some ways face even worse discrimination than the African Americans. Some believe that the blue is an indication that they are possessed by the devil and try to “baptize” them (that is, drown them in the creek) to save them. Others are afraid to touch or be touched by a blue-skinned person, thinking that they will turn blue too.

There’s a lot going on in this book – the Pack Horse Library, the devastation that the Great Depression is causing, the local mine and its iron hold on its workers and the plight of the blue-skinned people of Kentucky, all based on fact. There’s almost too much going on toward the end which feels a little rushed, but that is a minor quibble. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a treasure trove of nearly forgotten historical facts, the power of books and friendship and the beauty of these wild, remote mountains. Highly recommended.

RBG: Hero. Icon. Dissenter on DVD

This is the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court. But there is so much more to her story, so much of our country’s laws and makeup that she has influenced and shaped. She was and continues to be a believer in what America can be.

RBG looks at the remarkable life and career of this small, shy, seemingly unassuming and withdrawn woman. What lies behind that mild exterior however is a sharp mind, a steely spine and a clear vision. Ruth has faced discrimination her entire life – as one of only nine women in her Harvard Law School class of almost 500 men, she was asked to justify her taking the place of a man, when she became pregnant with her first child she was demoted and at her first job after finishing law school (with high honors), she was told she would make less money because her husband had a well-paying job.

Bit by bit Ruth has fought back, standing firm with her convictions and her knowledge of the law and of the Constitution. She has fought for equality for all people, no matter their race or their gender, striving for “a more perfect Union”, using the law and the Constitution to shape legislation that brings an end to discrimination.

This documentary is excellent, showing Ruth not only as a lawyer who has worked incredibly hard, but as someone who loves the opera, has raised two children and had a loving marriage (her husband died a few years ago). She strives to make friends with those with opposite viewpoints, mostly notably with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. I found my eyes opened at just how much we owe her and her tireless work and enjoyed this glimpse of a remarkable American.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become something of a hero lately, where her clear, steady gaze brings hope that change is possible. Watching this documentary shows us why there is hope for all of us.

No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert

No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert tells the story of three women whose families are all affected by the consequences of a local school district that loses its accreditation. The twelve miles that separate South Fork and Crystal Ridge may not seem like a long distance, but the conditions present in each area are drastically different. All three women and their families find themselves clashing with the difference in circumstances those twelve miles have thrust open them. With affluent Crystal Ridge resisting South Fork’s advance on their children’s education and sports prospects, parents in South Fork are fighting for the right to transfer their children to a better and more equal school district that still has its accreditation.

Anaya Jones grew up surrounded by the South Fork community. Her father even taught at the local South Fork school. Fresh out of college and the first college graduate in her family, Anaya wishes to teach at South Fork just like her dad did. She wants to show the families who attend South Fork that there are people who care for them, no matter what the public says about their town. With South Fork’s lose of accreditation for their school district however, Anaya finds herself instead working as the newest teacher at a top elementary school in the nearby affluent community of Crystal Ridge. Anaya is thoroughly unprepared for the tense situation she is walking into, even though her family’s situation has her slightly on edge around Crystal Ridge anyway.

Jen Covington has worked as a nurse her entire life, a career that she hoped would help her when she became a mother. Despite her and her husband’s intense desire to become parents, Jen’s history and physical body have resulted in a long, painful journey with no baby in sight. After realizing they were unable to have a baby of their own, Jen and her husband turned to adoption, hoping that process would be quicker. Adoption, however, took a long time as well, with Jen and her husband learning as much as they can to prepare themselves for their daughter’s arrival. Once their adopted daughter is home, Jen finds herself struggling in her new day-to-day life despite how much she prepared. Add in a move to Crystal Ridge and Jen and her new family soon find themselves dropped right into the Crystal Ridge and South Fork dilemma.

Camille Gray is the quintessential suburban mom. The wife of an executive, mother of three, PTA chairwoman, and master fundraiser for Crystal Ridge’s annual run, everyone assumes that Camille’s life is perfect. She thinks everything is perfect too. Everything changes when she learns that South Fork has lost its accreditation and that there is a possibility that Crystal Ridge could be affected by this. Students may be given the opportunity to transfer to a school decided upon by the administration. Once it is decided that Crystal Ridge will be the transfer school, the already unruly chaos taking over the community is ratcheted up. While Camille struggles to navigate the challenges presented by this school upheaval, her personal life is also undergoing major changes. Her strength is tested as she works to find a new normal for herself and her family.

What I enjoyed about No One Ever Asked is that the author chose to tell this story from three different points of view which really allowed the reader to understand each person’s motivations for their actions. This book will force you to challenge your perception of discrimination and prejudice right alongside each woman as they struggle with what they believe to be true.

Fireflies in December by Jennifer Erin Valent

fireflies-in-decemberDo you love fireflies?  I do — but I still call them lightning bugs, just as we all did back on the farm.  There’s something magical about them as they brighten up your backyard on a warm summer evening.  Recently, there have been reports that fireflies as a species are disappearing, or at least that their numbers are observably diminished.  Still, I have never seen a firefly in December, and so I was drawn to this title.

In Fireflies in December, a debut novel by Jennifer Erin Valent, we follow 13 year-old Jessilyn Lassiter during the summer of 1932 in southern Virginia.  The opening line, “The summer I turned thirteen, I thought I killed a man” certainly catches your attention.  We discover that Jessilyn’s family has taken in her best friend, Gemma, after Gemma’s parents die in  a tragic fire. Unfortunately, this act is not met with the expected tacit approval.  Gemma is black, and racism is rampant in this rural southern town.  Prejudice escalates as the local Ku Klux Klan violently threatens Jessilyn and her family.  In the end, Jessilyn begins to realize what it means to be a bright light in a dark world.

As this book is a winner of the Christian Writer’s Guild,  there are frequent references to faith and prayer, yet it doesn’t come off as preachy.  Considering the age of the protaganist, this book could be recommended for young adults, especially if their parents prefer more wholesome fare.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

shanghai-girls1In 1937 Shanghai, Pearl and her sister May are living a glamorous, sophisticated life, modeling as “beautiful girls” for the painters of magazine covers and calendar pages. Their sheltered, privileged world comes to a shattering halt when their Father loses everything and he must sell them into marriage. At first they are able to escape this fate, but when the war begins and the Japanese attack their beloved city, they must flee for their lives.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See follows the harrowing journey that the sisters must undertake – the hardship, the pain and the betrayals as they try to escape the Japanese and find a safe haven first in Hong Kong, then in San Francisco. Throughout it all the sisters remain each others staunchest supporters through good times and bad, through arranged marriages, lost children and oppressive discrimination. Their triumph is that, not only do they emerge from their trials as stronger people, they come through it together.

See also wrote the wildly popular Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, also set in China, and has done extensive research to fill her story with authentic detail. Her story gives us unique views of the past – the Japanese invasion of China and the suffering of the Chinese people at their conquerors hands, the discrimination against the Chinese in America and the Red Scare fear of communist threat that created suspicion against the Chinese in America in the 1950s.

While the trails and suffering that Pearl and May must endure sometimes seem almost endless, the author has left us with a cliffhanger ending, promising a possible sequel and future hope for the beautiful girls from Shanghai.