An American Editor

May 18, 2011

On Books: Honor Killing & The Thousand Autumns

This time it is a two-for-one review: one nonfiction, Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard, and one fiction, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. Let’s begin with Honor Killing.

In the annals of American jurisprudence, one lawyer stands above all other lawyers in popular mythology: Clarence Darrow. Darrow was the most successful and popular lawyer of the 20th century. Every move he made was followed by national press. His legal exploits covered the gamut of supertrials, including the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder of a cousin, in which Darrow’s clients pleaded guilty and he spoke for several days to save them from the death penalty. Darrow was also noted for representing union members at a time when union busting was a government policy. And he was most famous for defending the Tennessee school teacher, Scopes, in what was billed as the trial of the century — the great Monkey Trial of evolution vs. creationism in which his opponent was the great orator William Jennings Bryan.

Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard discusses Darrow’s last major case. Darrow was desperate for money, having lost his fortune in the bad investments and the collapse of the stock market, and so when he was approached in his retirement to defend Thalia Massie in Hawaii, he hemmed, he hawed, he accepted.

Thalia Massie was the daughter of penniless socialites who lived off the charity of relatives. But a socialite she was. And she was married to a U.S. Navy officer. The incident occurred in 1931 Hawaii. On the U.S. mainland, also in 1931, the racial prejudice was directed against blacks and an accusation of assaulting and raping 2 white women was made against 9 young black men, collectively known as the Scottsboro Boys. In Hawaii, the prejudice was against the native Hawaiians, by the oligarchs who controlled the economy and by the U.S. Navy.

Until I read Honor Killing, I admit I was unaware of the extent and depth of the prejudice against the Hawaiians. Honor Killing was an eye opener. The Massie trial was the culmination of a concerted effort by the white community to convict a group of native Hawaiians of raping Thalia Massie, a rape that never occurred, and the killing of one of the Hawaiians when a conviction was not gotten. Darrow was hired to represent the whites in the murder trial.

Honor Killing is a well-researched and well-written book. For my taste, too much time was spent by the author laying out the social, political, and economic environment in which the trials were held, but that was not enough to deter me from enjoying the book. Essentially, the attempt by the white community to convict the Hawaiians was largely politically motivated and was the Hawaiian Scottsboro Boys trial. Although the prosecution of the Hawaiian defendants preceded the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, you could easily substitute the participants in one trial for the participants in the other.

Honor Killing is a 5-star book and worth reading to get a better understanding of how racial prejudice in the early decades of the 20th century manifested itself and the expectations of the white citizens to be believed even in the face of directly contradictory evidence. As one person noted, evidence doesn’t matter.

David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet takes us to late 18th century/early 19th century Japan and the Dutch trading post at Nagasaki. At first I had trouble with the writing style, but after spending 15 minutes reading the novel, the style grew on me — so much so that I had difficulty putting down the book. Jacob De Zoet is one of the best novels published by one of the Agency 6 (Random House) I have read in years.

The story takes place in Dejima, which is the location of the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki harbor. De Zoet is a young man who has agreed to give 5 years of his life to the Dutch East India Trading Company in hopes of making his fortune and being able to return to The Netherlands to marry his sweetheart. The story is about his rise and fall, along with the rise and fall of Dejima and the Dutch East India Company, between 1799 and 1801.

The book provides an insight into Japan’s self-imposed insularity and the how Japanese society functioned at the time. In addition, it well illustrates the European attitude toward Asians.

The cast of characters is varied, covering the spectrum of who one may well have encountered at the time. De Zoet’s original plans are altered, however, after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, a disfigured midwife who is also a pupil, by special dispensation, of Dr. Marinus, who is part of the Dejima personnel. This encounter changes everything for De Zoet and ability and inability to deal with the intrigue and social customs that surround him forms the basis of the story.

Jacob De Zoet is historical fiction at its best. This, too, is a 5-star book and one worth spending the inflated price that has been artificially set as a result of the agency pricing scheme. It has been my policy not to buy Agency 6 ebooks except for rare instances, and this was one of those rare instances. I made the plunge because of the many positive remarks the book generated on an ebook forum. Well-crafted and well-written novels are becoming scarcer, but David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet demonstrates that such books are still available.

Both Honor Killing and Jacob De Zoet are books worth buying and reading in any format.

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