cover image Stories from Jonestown

Stories from Jonestown

Leigh Fondakowsk. Univ. of Minnesota, $27.95 (312p) ISBN 978-0-8166-7808-2

On November 18, 1978, 918 people, including U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, died in Jonestown, Guyana, most of them members of the Peoples Temple who drank poisoned punch at the urging of their charismatic leader, Jim Jones. In this approach to the tragic and unsettling subject, Fondakowski, a playwright and former head writer for The Laramie Project, focuses not on Jones but on members of the Peoples Temple who were away from the compound and survived. Culled from hundreds of hours of interviews gathered for her play The People’s Temple, Fondakowski spoke both to people who have devoted their lives to trying to understand the tragedy and those who have kept their past connections with Jonestown a secret. She encounters wildly different views of life at Jonestown: for some, it was paradise. For others, it was hell in the jungle. Most wrenching are the reminiscences of those like Nell Smart, who struggles with the thought of her mother giving Nell’s four children the poisoned Flavor-Aid (not Kool-Aid, as is commonly believed). Fondakowski explores the beginnings of the Peoples Temple in Ukiah, Calif., and how it expanded—through cross-country bus trips—until Jones took his followers to Guyana in 1977. Fondakowski perfectly captures the rapturous hope surrounding Jonestown, which makes its demise all the more heartbreaking. (Oct.)