The snow is hard and reaches almost to the window sill. The temperature is below freezing. The sky is gray. What better escape than settling in with a good book? Today, I have some non-fiction suggestions.
Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to her Son by Homeira Qaderi, is a deeply moving memoir by a Professor of Afghan literature, now living in the United States. She was a child during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, briefly lived with her family in a refugee community just over the Iranian border, returned to her ravaged hometown of Herat and struggled for education and dignity when the Taliban took over, banning schools.
Chafing under the oppression of girls and women, Homeira, 13, quietly undertook to home-school younger children in literature and writing, while hiding from the Taliban. If questioned, she would insist she was just coaching her students in verses from the Quran. The early years of an arranged marriage, which took the couple to university in Teheran, meant more freedom, but her husband’s relative enlightenment disappeared on their return to Afghan conservatism. He decided he wanted to marry another woman, divorced Qaderi and took their 19-month-old son from her.
Afghan courts validated his denying access to her baby, and she fled. The narrative of her life is interspersed with letters written to her son, for whom she cries relentlessly. Her activism on behalf on Afghan women continues, and her hopes to be reunited with her son remain. The power of the theocratic, misogynistic and patriarchal society endures, and the reader hopes that someday the son will be able to read his mother’s words and understand the depth of her love for him.
The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather is the story of Witold Pilecki, a Polish resistance fighter and family man who volunteers to be captured by the Nazis and imprisoned at Auschwitz to learn what was happening in this new facility, which started out as a labor camp for Poles and evolved into the centerpiece of the Nazi plan to exterminate all Jews. Pilecki’s other mission was to build a resistance movement within the camp itself. Pilecki documented the brutality and sadism of the SS, unspeakable privation, disease, and, for most, death, smuggling reports to resistance fighters on the outside and, from there, to London.
This biography is memorable for its “insider” details and its rendering of how Britain and the United States turned a deaf ear to the horrors of the Holocaust. Partly bowing to anti-Semitic forces in their own countries, Churchill and Roosevelt preferred to deal with that darkest of human chapters only after Germany was defeated. One American official said, “It was a wild rumor based on Jewish fears.” (Pope Pius XII was also informed about the slaughter but remained silent.) By their inaction over two years, the Allies contributed to the deaths of thousands sent to the gas chambers. Even if you have read much about WWII and Nazi genocide, this book adds much that should not be ignored.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by journalist David Grann delves into a little-told, shameful chapter of American history. As Native Americans were forced from their ancestral lands, one group – the Osage – were relocated to a part of Oklahoma no one else wanted. But there was oil under that land, and the Osage became very wealthy leasing their land to producers. In a blatantly racist move, the U.S. government made whites the legal guardians of the Osage, depriving them of control of their finances. But certain corrupt whites wanted even more.
Grann’s narrative is an edge-of-the-seat thriller about a string of cold-blooded murders during the 1920’s to kill off the Osage and transfer oil rights into the hands of those guardians, often seen as pillars of the community. The corruption was so insidious that, even when killers were identified, evidence disappeared, witnesses recanted, jurors were bribed and law enforcers became accessories to the crimes. One former Texas Ranger was recruited to the the nascent federal Bureau of Investigation, and the story unfolds from there. Grann, who writes for The New Yorker, has produced a powerful work of investigative reporting.
The White Darkness, also by David Grann, tells of retired British Army officer Henry Worsley’s efforts to complete a 1000-mile solo trek across the continent of Antarctica, through the South Pole. The feat was the unfulfilled dream of Worsley’s hero, explorer Ernest Shackleton, 60 years earlier. In narrating Worsley’s story, Grann retells the adventures of Shackleton, and Antarctic explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen. In 2008-2009, Worsley, a collector, a lover of poetry, a birder and photographer, had led a successful Antarctic expedition, the members of which were descendants of the Shackleton group. In 2016, a century after Shackleton’s last expedition, Worsley’s eight-week solo trek across the planet’s most brutal landscape was followed by school children and adults around the world through his daily communiques. This Grann book is short, impactful, and at least as much about Worsley’s inner journey as his battle to traverse the perils of Antarctica.
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