In 2018, BuzzFeed News published the long-form article “We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage,” the result of six years of investigation by journalist Christine Kenneally. It took Kenneally another three years to write Ghosts of the Orphanage, which PublicAffairs will publish in March. Centering her narrative on the abuses at St. Joseph’s in mid-20th-century Vermont, Kenneally expands her lens to expose the systemic failings of the orphanage system, which, she writes, was at its peak in the 1930s and largely disbanded by the 1970s.
“She was determined to find out what happened,” says Ben Adams, executive editor at PublicAffairs, “and there was just more, and more, and more.” Kenneally’s two previous titles, The First Word and The Invisible History of the Human Race, respectively explored the origins of language and of identity; when Adams asked what united her three books, she explained that they were all answers to questions she was told not to ask. She asked anyway.
Kenneally initially struggled to believe the stories of survivors and witnesses, and her dawning realization is the engine that drives the narrative: she leads readers through the story of her own discovery as the evidence and death toll mount.
“It’s easy to identify a villain and say ‘that’s the perpetrator,’ but then you identify another villain and another, and you think: is something wider going on?” Adams says. “The villain is a network of people who came through different orphanages for different reasons, who on their best days were not monstrous people, but who were capable of monstrous acts.”
PW’s starred review called the book “essential, if deeply difficult, reading.” Adams expands on the idea, noting that St. Joseph’s and other such institutions relied on the taboo against discussing abuse “to go about their business undisturbed. The undoing of that is one of the most important goals of this book; by reading the story, you’re contributing to a reckoning.”
An empathetic approach
Atlantic national correspondent Mark Bowden is perhaps best known for writing Black Hawk Down, a National Book Award finalist turned Oscar-winning film about the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. The author’s new book is set closer to, but a world apart from, the suburb of Baltimore where he grew up.
In Life Sentence, an April release from Atlantic Monthly Press, Bowden profiles Montana Barronette, known as Tana. He and his gang ruled violence-ridden Sandtown, the Baltimore neighborhood made famous by The Wire and infamous for the police-custody death of Freddie Gray. Tana was first arrested at age nine for auto theft, began selling drugs at 13, and after a string of homicides beginning in his teens was sentenced to life in prison at age 23.
Bowden’s upbringing had nothing in common with Tana’s, and the author frames his subject’s story as an example of what happens when children in poverty-stricken communities are left with no prospects other than “the life.” “He approached it with empathy,” says Grove Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin. “The title captures it—Tana is serving a life sentence, but his circumstances gave him another. His father was imprisoned and then deported, his mother addicted to drugs; he was raised by his grandmother. Kids in Sandtown often don’t have a father or a coherent nuclear family, and young men in the neighborhood are running drugs and committing crimes—you get sucked into it.”
PW’s starred review said, “Bowden pulls no punches in his indictment of the ways in which the richest country in the world has allowed Black children for decades to be born into blighted urban neighborhoods, and saddled them with burdens that they must struggle to surmount to lead meaningful lives.” The book “will haunt readers long after they finish it,” according to the review, and like Adams at PublicAffairs, Entrekin believes this discomfort serves a larger purpose: “How will we ever understand gangs if we don’t read these stories?”
Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product strategist living in Washington, D.C., and the author of the memoir Never Simple.
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