In his song “Honest With Me,” Bob Dylan sings, “Some things are too terrible to be true.” But what about the things both terrible and true?
Perhaps it’s all the time we’ve spent watching Making a Murderer these last few weeks, but we’re a little obsessed with the latest crop of memoir and true crime books around here. Told right, a factual account can rivet readers just as much as the most fantastical made-up tale, maybe even more. After all, in fiction, anything could happen — the hero might simply sprout wings and fly away from danger. In nonfiction, human beings are subject to the limitations of the real world, which makes their terrors all the more terrifying and their triumphs all the more amazing.
Take The Sound of Gravel for instance. It’s a good thing you’re aware from the beginning that Ruth Wariner wrote this book herself from the safe distance of adulthood. Otherwise, it might be impossible to take how much you worry about her as a little girl, growing up in Colonia LeBaron, a polygamist cult just over the Mexican border in the middle of dusty nowhere. The thirty-ninth of her father’s forty-two children (“Most of my friends were related to me in some way,” she writes), Ruth survives many years of nearly unbearable poverty, manipulation by the spiritual leaders who are also her family, and heartbreak after heartbreak — all while clinging tenaciously to her own powers of observation and determination. You’ll want to reach into the book, grab her little hand, and whisk her away to safety. That she is able to remember these events with such clarity and recount them with such restraint makes the book especially remarkable.
Then there’s While the City Slept, an extended journalistic account of a horrific crime that took place in Seattle in 2009. Once you’re drawn into the lives of Jennifer Hopper and Teresa Butz, it’s hard to keep reading without a sense of dread. You know they will ultimately cross paths with a young man named Isaiah Kalebu and that tragedy will result. The miracle of what author Eli Sanders does here — and probably the reason he won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the crime in Seattle’s weekly paper The Stranger — is that in addition to getting to know Hopper and Butz as individuals, you come to understand Kalebu and how he slipped through crack after crack in our judicial and mental health systems until he became the person who could do what he did. It’s a story about three human beings, elegantly and articulately told.
There’s nothing we can do to change what happened to the people in these pages, but if we can’t reach across time and space to save them, these books at least allow us to bear witness to their lives. This passage from While the City Slept sums up the purpose of the book and could apply to The Sound of Gravel just as well:
“This happened to me. You must listen. This happened to us. You must hear who was lost. You must hear what he did. You must know what he took from us. This happened.”
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