Must Read Book

Gordon, Linda, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (1999).

Surely I'm not the only one who has grown pretty tired of reading about race, class and gender. What began as an incisive interpretive tool quickly became the analysis of choice and finally something like the default program for approaching any and all topics. Somewhere I suspect there are articles with a gendered interpretation of parking meters and the role of cropdusting in racial construction. It's an illustration of what we might call the Elastic Waistband Principle. Just because something is flexible does not mean it fits everything. Yes, you can stretch a useful idea--just like Sansabelt pants and boxer shorts--so it fits some unlikely subjects, but past a certain point it looks pretty silly. And stretched wider and wider more and more often, it loses its ability to hold firm around what it is best at containing. It's the opposite of a reduction to the lowest common denominator: an expansion to fit the biggest beergut at the county fair. Forced to fit virtually every topic imaginable, the race-class-gender approach has been losing its snap for some time. Now comes Linda Gordon with this splendid reminder that when the subject's right, that three-edged analysis (to slip into another metaphor) can peel away the surface to reveal the innermost American experience. Her book is all the more impressive because, unless I missed it, she never strings those three words together into the familiar mantra. She also tells a terrific story. It's 1904. A train carries forty Irish orphans from New York to the Arizona copper towns of Clifton and Morenci. With the help of a local priest the Catholic New York Foundling Hospital has arranged for adoptive homes. Locals, including many wives among the towns' elite, gather for the arrival. The train pulls in. The little darlings disembark--into the arms of their new (gasp!) Mexican families. Quickly, hell breaks loose. Armed mobs from the white side of town seize and redistribute the children. Catholic authorities sue but the courts uphold what amounts to a vigilante mass kidnapping. Few episodes could expose more vividly the slipperiness of race. The church had trouble placing Irish children in New York because they were considered non-white, but at the end of the trip west they were white, which was exactly what outraged white matrons, since Mexicans were considered non-white, although earlier they had been white as opposed to, say, Chinese. Confused? Good. Race is a shifty mess. A major shift in perception had come during a bitter strike the year before, when Mexican workers were (literally) classed as non-white. Pushing along the whole sad business was a maternal instinct twisted into an especially bizarre shape by those economic and cultural stresses. Gordon's mastery of detail and broader contexts brings this remarkable bit of Americana to life. If I were an English reviewer, I'd call it a corking good read. Since I'm not, I'll just say I enjoyed it as much as anything I've read the past couple of years.

Recommended by Elliot West, University of Arkansas

Elliott West, distinguished professor of history at the University of Arkansas, teaches and writes on the history of the American West, environmental and Native American history, and the history of childhood. His most recent book, The Contested Plains, won the Francis Parkman Prize in 1999.