February Reads 2021

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.

Caste is a book about race and history that made me look at the US in a way I have never looked at it before. By comparing the US with Nazi Germany and the Indian caste system, Wilkerson makes the argument that the US isn’t necessarily a racist country, but a country with a structured caste system that relies heavily on racism. As she points out, thinking about the US this way makes it easier to understand some of the “anomalies” we see in our society, like why very poor white people can seem to vote against their own interests when they vote Republican. To explain how this system developed, Wilkerson jumped around in time a lot, and in the beginning it was a little difficult to get used to that format. But as I found out, using that format made smooth connections between events that happened in the 1800s and attitudes that survive today, and it was an eye-opening read as a result.

I learned a lot of specific things about the United States’ history of race and caste that I hadn’t heard before. One thing that stuck out to me was how much – and how methodically – leaders in Nazi Germany studied and drew from the US when putting together techniques to keep Jews and other “undesirable” populations down. That was mind-boggling to learn. I also learned that Germany, as a country, has actually reckoned with the harm they caused during that time. They’ve put up memorials to victims and paved over the graves of Nazi leaders. Knowledge of the past and a commitment to never letting something like the Holocaust happen again is part of being German. The way that Wilkerson connected that to how profoundly the the US has not reckoned with our past makes it crystal clear how much we are so not in a post-racial society, no matter how much we’d like to believe we are.

Overall, this book is a great way to understand the timelines of caste and racism in the US, and gives new terminology that really explains the society we live in. It was a pretty quick read, too, despite the heavy subject matter. I highly recommend this one.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capital, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined — every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.

I have owned Kindle versions of the Hunger Games series since they were first published, but this book made me want hard copies of the whole set. This was so good! As the description states, it’s the origin story of President Snow, who ends up as Katniss’ nemesis in the later books. I LOVED seeing the origin of themes and motifs from the HG series, like the hanging tree song. The only thing I didn’t like about this was in the middle of the book, after the Hunger Games are over, the move that Snow was forced to make was very abrupt. Other than that, I loved everything about this.

Collins made young Snow relatable and sympathetic in some respects – he had a cousin he loved and a grandmother he tolerated, he had a lot of childhood trauma relating to how the Capitol experienced the war, and he had the normal high school drama that goes along with competition between classmates. But alongside that, Collins showed how he was already turning into someone ruthless and cold: He felt like he owned Lucy Gray rather than seeing her as an equal, relentlessly justified anything he might have been wrong about, and didn’t think through the humanitarian issues that were brought up by his friend Sejanus.

This story poses some interesting questions about the nuance of being human. Thinking back on it, it was actually a pretty good companion read for Caste, because sometimes it’s hard to understand how people can do terrible things to other humans and also love their families deeply at the same time. I don’t think every instance (or even most instances?) of this is due to trauma, as some of it undoubtedly was in Snow’s case. Sometimes (a lot of times?) I think it’s due to the systems we grow up in and how much our families and friends uphold them, consciously or subconsciously. Obviously this theme is explored here very differently than it is in Caste, but it’s there in both nonetheless. If you liked the Hunger Games series or like books about social ills, both of these are great picks.

All images and descriptions from Goodreads.

4 comments

  1. Thanks for the insight into the HG Snow prequel novel; I’ve been considering reading that for a while. With the original trilogy, I loved the first two but I felt like by the time she got to the third, she was just sort of throwing ideas at the wall to see what would stick.

  2. I feel bad for authors when they can’t seem to move on beyond their popular series. I’m not faulting them for it–I can’t think up a single fictional story much less a series or a variety of different plots–but I worry about them. I think many of us can get stuck in our past successes and find it difficult to start from scratch. // Imagine if America could simply acknowledge the raw deal that Blacks have gotten from the start until the present day here. To me, it’s as obvious as daybreak but so many either can’t see it or refuse to see it. Bold to make any comparisons to Nazi Germany. Seems like the odds of a backlash are high. I wish I could get interested in nonfiction books. You read some cool stuff.

    • Sometimes me too on the author thing. I think a lot of times it can just feel like fan service (like with that Harry Potter play and the Fantastic Beasts stuff, although I do like the FB movies). I think I feel like this more with TV shows though. I think the ideal length for a TV show is 4 or 5 seasons. If you can’t finish a story off satisfactorily in that amount of time, the show isn’t worth making anymore.

      I wish we could. I don’t know how we will though except through some sweeping policy changes. I read somewhere that public opinion often follows policy change even though we feel like it’s the other way around (apparently, the legalization of gay marriage was an example of that). Yeah lately I’ve been adding much more nonfiction to my list than fiction. I should have majored in sociology or something lol.

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