Bought & Sold, by Megan Stephens

Eight stars

When I made the decision to read this book by Megan Stephens, I knew that I would not be heading into a story of hope and enlightenment, but of something depraved and horrific. Stephens recounts how a single trip to Greece with her mother changed everything and continues to haunt her years later. In the early portion of the book, the reader discovers that Megan lived a life of broken families and parents whose main interest in life was drink and booze-fuelled fights with one another. After the breakdown of the family unit, Megan and her sister turned to acts of petty crime to fill their days. Megan became the problem child, though had yet to get involved in anything too salacious. When Megan and her mom took a trip to Greece, their eyes opened to the possibilities before them. Megan’s mom met a lovely gentleman and Megan seemed to attract the attention of a few Albanian men, specifically Jak. Spending as much time with him as she could, Megan soon fostered a strong affinity for Jak, who appeared to love her as much as she did him. After extending their trip once, Megan’s mom had to face reality and prepared to see them go back home. However, Megan’s attachment to Jak was complete and she turned away to start a life with the man she loved, at the ripe age of fourteen. From there, Jak helped Megan with the idea of working, though this would not be the work that any 14 year-old might expect. Jak asked her to help him raise some money for his family by turning to sex, but only for a time. Megan would work the streets, always monitored by Jak and, blindly, had her eye on the prize the entire time. She hoped that she could get out of the work and build a life with Jak. However, as the countless number of men sought to fulfil grotesque fantasies with her, Megan soon slipped into an abyss from which there was no escape. Jak eventually sent her off to work for another man, who had Megan working in bordellos. This is where she would average eighty to one hundred quickie sessions a night, pulling in thousands of euros for the men who handled her. With threats of death directed towards Megan and her family, there was no escape. Any straying from the path could be met with a slap, a beating, or even worse. Sold and bandied around Athens, Megan soon was in deeper than she could have imagined and she had no idea how to free herself without endangering her mother. Even when she was arrested, her fear of the man who ‘owned’ her left Megan helpless and turning back to the life. With a mother who was being fed lies about her ‘waitressing’ career, Megan had no one to help her and a life with no end in sight. How could she find hope in a world where sex and abuse were not hourly visitors? This is the story of a teenage girl’s six years in a human trafficking ring where death was the only assurance of safety. While it is hard to recommend a book of this nature, I would strongly support anyone who wants to pop their naive bubble of daily life to try this piece, if only for its sobering aspect.

As I said before, this was not expected to be a light and enjoyable read. I entered this reading knowing that full well and I suppose it is why I knew the piece would work well as an ‘Awkward Read’ in my reading challenge. The story reads fairly well, with the narrative flowing easily and the reader able to understand some of the early depravities that Megan faced. While there is a great deal of implied horror, Megan Stephens does not subject the reader to extensive and graphic depiction of what happened to her, which leaves me both thankful and shortchanged. I know it is a little controversial to say that, as an outsider, but I almost wonder if the impact might have been stronger if the reader could see some of the detailed horrors and have that stomach churning moment. That being said, I did see the story has somewhat hokey at times and wondered (as Megan did in the retelling) how these choices could have been made and the lifelines ignored. I had to remind myself that this was a fourteen year-old who was drunk on love making these choices with the neon lights flashing ‘bad idea’, ‘stupid girl’, and ‘what the hell, Megan!?!’. That being said, fear can surely fuel the willingness to stay on the path before you, if only to ensure you live another day. I will say that while I understand human trafficking is a constant issue and happens all over the place, Megan’s story did not play out as I might have predicted. She was not constantly strung out on drugs or sent to some backwater country and shackled to the wall between shifts. She lived in a hotel, was transported to and from work, and remained sober for the most part. It did leave me wondering how much human trafficking might be going on around me (not to sound paranoid) and if there are rings operating in the communities I visit for work on a daily basis. The story was quite sobering and offered some interesting insights, as well as fuelling a sickening feeling that anyone could treat another human being with such disregard. The book can be read swiftly, though its fourteen chapters will surely weigh heavily on the minds and hearts of those who take the time to soak it all in. Horrible topic, but truly informative.

Kudos, Madam Stephens, for this interesting read. Words cannot express how sorry I am to have read the horrors you endured in your teen years, but you’ve synthesised things quite well and left me wondering about the larger world of human and sex trafficking, especially in the West.

This book satisfies Topic #2: Awkward Attempt, in the Equinox #3 portion of the A Book for All Seasons book challenge.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and his Times, by Joel Richard Paul

Eight stars

In my years of reading American history, I have always found biographies of the Founding Fathers of greatest interest to me. Not only were these men full of grit and determination in the face of their British oppressors, but their decisions proved to be some of the most important for the new America, many of which are still held firmly in the political system today. While the Fathers worked to create the central document of rules and limitations—The U.S. Constitution—this was only part of the rules that would govern the country for over two centuries. Joel Richard Paul effectively argues throughout this tome that the Rule of Law was central to a strong republic and no man helped shape that legal tenet more than John Marshall, soldier, politician, diplomat, and long-serving Chief of the United States Supreme Court. Paul’s detailed biography not only helps the reader better understand early America, but also its growth through important legal and political decisions that came from the Court. Not only was Marshall an essential part of early American jurisprudence, but his ability to create conformity amongst the Justices of the Court proved not only that he was persuasive in his positions, but also worked to show the American public that the law can—and should—supersede political divisions. Paul’s thoroughness in presenting much of Marshall’s life serves not only to educate the reader, but help provide a better understanding of America’s early steps toward being a country based on an enshrined set of laws.

Paul spends the first half of the book laying the groundwork for the great legal career of John Marshall. Unlike some more modern men, those who would one day be given the moniker Founding Fathers seemed to have many important positions in colonial America. After laying some of the groundwork of Marshall’s ancestry—where the reader discovers that Marshall and Thomas Jefferson were second cousins—the narrative turns to a brief discussion of the Revolutionary War, where Marshall served in the Continental Army under General Washington. Marshall may not have been a war hero in the most conventional sense, but his understanding of the political goings-on and the legal ramifications of the colonies’ desire to secede would prove valuable in the years to come. Working to help craft some aspects of the constitutional documents, Marshall used some of his legal abilities to ensure that the new Republic would not be left on shaky ground. Proving himself not only to be a sharp legal mind, Marshall was sent to France to help broker deals to solidify American allies while Britain was still seen as the enemy to much of the European countries. While stationed there, Marshall developed some strong social friendships, which Paul posits may have been his way of forgetting the family he left back in America. Marshall’s persuasive ways were not able to cement long-lasting agreements with France, but did help earn him his first formal position in the new American Government. John Adams, who followed Washington to the position of President of the United States offered Marshall the coveted position of Secretary of State. This Cabinet post in its original form held more prestige than it does today, equating to a quasi-presidential role for America on the world stage. With open animosity still present with Britain and a yet to be buttonholed France, Marshall utilised his abilities to strengthen America’s position on the world scene amongst the European superpowers. During this time, America began to show some early signs of strain within its own borders. Divisions between key Founding Fathers saw two political parties emerge: the Federalists and the Republicans. While both labeled as right-of-centre by the author, Federalists held strong traditional views with the country as a whole serving as the base unit of decision making, while Republicans sought ongoing change for Americans and saw the state as the political unit in this new country. Clashes would ensue and vilification of those on the other side of the divide proved to be a regular game. As Adams saw his presidential power waning with the constant attacks by Thomas Jefferson, he chose to offer Marshall one of the most powerful positions possible, that of Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Marshall waffled for a time, as the Court was seen as a weak body on which no man wanted to serve for long. That said, there was the chance to shape the Court and interpret many of the new laws being drafted and implemented by the state and federal governments. Marshall did acquiesce, taking the position in hopes that he could make something of it. How little he knew of what was to come in the decades that followed.

Marshall seemed to come into his own after his appointment to the Supreme Court, even though he was hesitant to accept the role from the outset. Marshall saw the work as difficult and taxing, but also was able to utilise his sharp mind to interpret laws effectively, laying the groundwork for major legal decisions, some of which still hold firm. Paul has aptly named this biography, for many of the decisions that Marshall made (or others on the Court wrote) were without any form of precedent—the idea of a previous court ruling that could be used as the foundation of a judicial decision—thereby allowing (forcing?) the Court to forge into new territory. Paul does delve into a small discussion of the perspective that Marshall had for the Court, an active or interpretative judicial branch, which was substantiated by the comments of others. Some saw Marshall leading the Court to read things into laws or the US Constitution that may not have been present, thereby creating new laws or unintended interpretations. Others argued that Marshall simply followed what was in the law and forced the lawmakers to be bound by what they had passed in their legislative assemblies. Either way, Paul argues effectively that Marshall saw the Constitution has a ‘living tree’ or always evolving, which may help the reader and historians better understand some of his interpretations of legal matters. Through the latter portion of the biography, Paul develops the narrative of Marshall as head of the Court, deciding many important cases that would help shape the young Republic, including: states rights, private land rights, legal entitlement of the Indigenous (read: Indian at the time) population, slavery, and the limits of Executive Power. Numerous cases are listed throughout the narrative, some with great backstories, to help the reader better understand those cases that made their way before the Court and how Marshall sought to interpret them. Interspersed within the cases, Paul develops the historical setting and changes of presidents, some of whom admired Marshall’s work while others sought to vilify him. Marshall remained on the Court for over thirty years and, while holding the judicial and executive branches of government apart, could be seen to inject the odd comment into the goings-on that shaped America. One aspect that historians and biographers can only ponder and not substantiate is the number of unanimous decisions that came from the Court. Marshall may have started with numerous other Federalist justices, but that number waned the longer he remained on the Court. However, the staggering amount of unanimous decisions seemed to continue. As an aside for those who are not aware, discussions of the US Supreme Court justices when they meet in conference to decide cases are neither public nor are they documented for historical review. Therefore, it is all a mystery as to how Marshall might have developed so many strong-minded legal scholars to come together on hundreds of cases. When Marshall could no longer ignore his health concerns, he was forced to leave the Court, having served his country for decades. As with many men of the time, his decline was swift and he left an indelible mark on American history. As Paul effectively argues, no matter one’s political stripe, the country mourned the loss of John Marshall, who served as the compass for the Union leading up to some of the most tumultuous times that would befall the immature Republic.

Joel Richard Paul provides a thorough and educational biography of John Marshall, permitting the reader to better understand this man who shaped early America through his dedication and attention to detail. Paul develops a strong and chronological narrative that permits the reader to see just how varied Marshall’s life came to be and how he put his all into every job he was assigned. As with many other biographies of the Founding Fathers, change was ever-present and the evolution of the country occurred with each decision made. Marshall found himself in the middle of most of it, be it as a soldier, diplomat, cabinet secretary, and Supreme Court Justice. His ideas sought not only to shape the new country, but also proved useful in helping to build a foundation of a country that was seeking to differentiate itself from its past colonial oppressors (the British). Paul offers some great detail in his narrative, but also leaves many aspects of the story open for interpretation or future exploration. It is apparent that a detailed analysis of Marshall’s legal decisions could take up an entire volume, as could fleshing out more of the early years that Marshall lived, before he emerged on the battlefield for the Continental Army. Of interest to some will be Paul’s exploration in the latter portion of the final chapter of the lives of the two cousins, Marshall and Thomas Jefferson. How diametrically opposed the two men could be, yet how quintessential they were to the advancement of the Republic. Paul has done a wonderful job here and leaves the reader wanting more, which tends to happen for those who love the era and enjoy a variety of perspectives. Highly recommended for those with the patience to delve into this biography, which mixes politics, history, and legal matters in equal measure.

Kudos, Mr. Paul, for such a wonderful piece of work. I can only hope that I locate some of your other work soon to better understand other topics that you have taken the time to synthesise.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Atticus Finch: The Biography, by Joseph Crespino

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Joseph Crespino, Perseus Books, and Basic Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

The name Atticus Finch was long synonymous with kindness and compassion, showing his children the importance of not judging a book by its cover. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Finch’s character pushes the limits of 1930s Alabama acceptance and tries to bring justice to the African American population, calling himself a ‘moderate Southerner’. However, those who sought out and read Lee’s second published novel, Go Set a Watchman, are jolted to see Atticus turned into a racist who strongly sides with his Caucasian brothers in putting those of colour in their place. Shock came from this revelation, but there is a story there; two, actually. Joseph Crespino seeks not only to explore the vastly different versions of the two Atticus characters in this piece, but also to give the reader a better understanding of Nelle ‘Harper’ Lee and how she fashioned Atticus out of her own father’s life. The attentive reader will see strong parallels between the elder Lee and Atticus, leaving this book with a better understanding of the metamorphosis made by the latter between the two novels, published over half a century apart.

Amasa Coleman ‘A.C.’ Lee was a genuinely affable man who married his sweetheart before the start of the Great War. With two of his children born in the years following his marriage, A.C. started a law practice and had one highly controversial case, where he defended an African American man accused of raping a white woman. With that came the call for lynchings, an event that brought all townsfolk out to watch, even as it disgusted A.C. The Lee family welcomed their third child, Nelle Harper, born significantly later than her next youngest sibling. Nelle would forever forge a close connection to her father, as Crespino elucidates throughout the text, when A.C. became a single involved parent soon thereafter. It was this relationship between A.C. and Nelle that created the strong connection seen in both of Harper Lee’s novels. A.C. left the practice of law and found pleasure in life running a weekly newspaper in Monroeville, in the heart of Alabama. He would present the news to the locals as he saw fit and provided his readers with a large stage on which to offer their grievances through Letters to the Editor. A.C. would also use this stage to compose editorials of his own, helping to shape the community with a well-rounded set of opinions. These opinions did vary from many of those around Alabama, but A.C. would not be deterred. While defending the rights of all, he did understand that there were differences between the races, though did not extol them as vehemently as some in Alabama or around the Southern states. However, as Nelle grew, she soon came to see that the community in which she was living had vastly different views from those of her father, which did force her to question much of what was going on. A.C. did his best to shape his youngest daughter’s ideas, but the world around them was also helpful in providing its own Southern Charm, particularly related to race relations. As A.C. and Nelle watched Alabama become more deeply divided, it turned them both away from the hope for equality and into a realm of realistic division. By the mid- to late-1950s, as Nelle prepared to leave Alabama for the bright lights of New York City, A.C. was firmly rooted in a divisive view of race relations. It was an acceptance of inequality or race differentiation. Crespino explores how A.C. joined groups committed to keeping whites in positions of superiority, but would not engage with KuKlux members, citing that violence was not the answer. Throughout the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, Alabama’s race clashes reached a fevered pitch, which surely influenced A.C. in his waning years. This would provide Nelle much fodder for her writing career, which started in an interesting manner, permitting one A.C. Lee to breathe life into the fictional Atticus Finch.

Crespino explores Nelle (hereafter called by her author’s moniker, Harper) and her introduction into the world of writing through the most generous of Christmas gifts. Close friends of hers offered to give her a stipend equivalent to one year’s wages to allow her to write without distraction. Lee used her perch in New York to explore some of the happenings back in Monroeville and penned Go Set a Watchman in short order, which depicted one Jean Louise Finch returning from the North to take in what had become of her children Alabama home. When Harper Lee had the novel sent in for consideration, many found the story and the characters drab or too basic. Rejection letters abounded, but Lee did not let that stop her. Soon there were other short stories, sometimes penned in a brief time, which helped flesh out her key characters. A youthful Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch appeared, somewhat precocious and yet always seeking answers from her knowledgeable father, Atticus. It was only when Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird that she had publishers rushing to put it to print. Crespino notes that these publishers, located in New York City, rushed the printing as it was a book that Northerners could enjoy, with its criticism of Southern treatment of the African American population. Readers who are familiar with the book will know that Lee portrayed Alabama as strongly segregated and deeply divided, with the Finch family almost an island unto themselves. Atticus sought not only to stand alone around so many with strong opinions, but wanted to teach his children the importance of taking a moment to look at all perspectives before making any judgement. When Lee had the book published in 1960, it was a shock to the country (and the world) that such behaviour could be going on in the South, though its reception was not entirely joyous. Crespino explores the cinematic depiction of the book as well, with Gregory Peck as its lead. Peck utilised his own opinions to shape the Atticus character as a hero to his children and a villain to his fellow citizens, though few could expect much else. Atticus Finch in this regard is surely the A.C. Lee that Harper knew as a child, though it only told part of the story.

Where things take an interesting turn throughout Crespino’s book is the exploration of Lee’s first novel, the forgotten Watchman. It was only in its publication that readers saw another side of Atticus Finch in his older age. Lee depicts Atticus as more racist and drawn towards the racial class system in America. Crespino argues that this Atticus, who likely alarms many readers in his gruffness, was the A.C. Lee of the mid- to late-50s, after leaving his editorial views behind. Atticus reflects more of the Alabama of the times in this novel, vastly different from the man who sought to defend an African American man accused of rape. While Northern audiences loved Mockingbird, Crespino argues that Harper Lee sought to publish Watchman, which was closer to her own personal views, as a primer for Northerners to see things from the perspective of Southern inhabitants, to offer a dose of the other side. This is likely why it was rejected at first and only published in 2015, even then as an unedited manuscript years after Harper Lee died. There is surely a strong Atticus parallel with the life of A.C. Lee found within its pages, but nowhere near as soft or warm-hearted. Without the ability to defend her position, many soured on Harper Lee as an author and could not understand why she would bastardise her beloved Atticus so much. It is the attentive reader of this biography that sees the metamorphosis over time, as A.C. Lee no longer tried to block out the Alabama influence that permeated his daily life. Perhaps Harper Lee simply sought to present her readers with a complete picture, though there was no bridge or middle-ground on which readers could accept the transition. Left with questions and outrage, many vilified the author from the grave. Atticus Finch, like all other men, was flesh and blood, influenced by his surroundings, as A.C. Lee tended to be. However, without the background understanding of how closely Atticus was to A.C. Lee, few readers will understand or want to hear the justifications.

Not only was this a refreshing look at the life of Amasa Coleman Lee, but also a sobering snapshot of Harper Lee and her creation of Atticus Finch. For decades, Finch was seen as the personification of the moderate Southerner, whose views were neither radical nor browbeating. However, with the release of Watchman in 2015, much of the world turned against Finch (and by extension, Harper Lee). Joseph Crespino breathes new life into this debate by writing of the parallels between the fictitious Finch and A.C. Lee, which serves to help the reader better understand the significant change. Crespino relies not only on scores of historical texts and past Harper Lee biographies, but archived interviews to provide the reader with the mindset that Harper Lee had when writing these two novels and to explore the life and times of her father. It is likely difficult to model a fictional character after someone in real life, particularly if the author is close to that person, as the nuances of their character must (for some readers) be adequately substantiated to accept anything but the most loving of depictions on the page. Harper Lee, in all her wisdom, was not able to properly explain the latter depiction of Atticus Finch or show the general public the parallels between him and her own father. Crespino pulls back the curtain to offer that detailed analysis and may, fingers crossed, provide many readers with a better explanation as to why things got so intense when comparing the two pieces. Crespino has opened my eyes to much related to the Lee family, the writing of the two novels, and the influence that Alabama politics had on the metamorphosis of A.C. Lee and Atticus Finch. I will certainly have to revisit both novels and see some of the explanations that are made throughout this biography, especially now that I am armed with new information. I can only hope to have a better understanding and create my own bridge between the novels to justify things, something that Harper Lee never did. One question still simmers in my mind: had Watchman been published in 1957, would the general reaction to the book in the Northern part of America been such that we might never have seen Mockingbird in its print or film versions? And a follow-up: had Mockingbird not been published, how might the understanding of Southern race relations been depicted to the world?

Kudos, Mr. Crespino, for making me think so very much about this and other topics of interest. I am eager to find some more of your work and understand the nuances of Southern race relations and the inside knowledge of key American personalities.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: