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Book Bag: “Jerusha” by Dolores McCullough; “Making a Monster” by Dawn Keetley


Friday, October 06, 2017

by Steve Pfarrer

JERUSHA

by Dolores McCullough

Levellers Press

levellerspress.com

   In the United States, the idea of “passing” — being classified as a member of one racial group but appearing to be part of another — has generally described how a person of color or multiracial identity assimilated into white society to escape the prejudice non-whites have faced.

That idea is at the heart of “Jerusha,” a novel by Amherst writer Dolores McCullough that’s centered on Danielle, a woman who’s on a quest to discover her true identity. All her life, she has assumed she’s white — but as the novel progresses, she begins to question that notion.

   Told primarily from the perspective of Danielle as a 39 year old, the story also flashes back in time to show critical moments when Danielle first wonders about her background, and if her parents are concealing some aspect of the family’s past.

   The story opens in 1955 with the family having moved from a working-class town in Massachusetts to an upscale Connecticut suburb, where Danielle’s father, the gregarious Mac, has opened a new car dealership. At a party her parents throw to meet their new neighbors and Danielle’s classmates, Danielle, who’s 14, can’t help but compare her dark, olive looks and curly hair to the white skin and straight hair of the other girls.

And when one of those girls suggests Danielle doesn’t look anything like them, she’s horrified.    Her father, though, says, “If anyone tells you you look like Negro, just tell them it’s your Aztec ancestry.”

   It’s only years later, when Danielle has become a teacher and a theater director, that she begins to research her family’s story and discover some of the secrets her father, in a quest to improve his life and that of his family, has kept hidden from her and her brother.

   In her author’s note, McCullough, a retired teacher, says she was inspired to write “Jerusha” when she discovered her own mixed racial heritage years ago, including a great, great grandmother who had been a slave and her former owner’s kept woman.

There will be a book launch for “Jerusha” Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Collective Copies, 71 South Pleasant Street in Amherst.

 

MAKING A MONSTER: JESSE POMEROY, THE BOY MURDERER OF 1870S BOSTON

By Dawn Keetley

University of Massachusetts Press

www.umass.edu/umpress/

   In the aftermath of the shocking carnage in Las Vegas last Sunday, it’s easy to forget that the modern era does not have a stranglehold on psychotic killers. In a story that earned national attention in the early 1870s, a Boston boy, Jesse Pomeroy, was charged first with torturing several young boys and, a few years later, murdering two other children.

   In “Making a Monster,” by the University of Massachusetts Press, Lehigh University English professor Dawn Keetley explores the case and suggests there’s a connection between Pomeroy’s crimes and those of modern-day murderers: “There’s certainly no denying that Jesse Pomeroy was exceptional, but he was not beyond the pale, as claims of his monstrousness insisted.”

   Pomeroy, who was born in 1859, first came to the attention of authorities in the fall of 1872 when, at age 12, he was charged with assaulting and torturing several boys, sometimes stripping them and whipping them, or slashing them with a knife. He was found guilty and sent to a reform school until age 14, when he was returned to the custody of his mother.

   But just a few months later, he was arrested again and charged with the murder of two other children. He was sentenced to death in late 1874, when he was 15 — the youngest person ever to face the death penalty in the commonwealth.

   Various theories abounded at the time, Keetley writes, as to what motivated Pomeroy, such as that he was contaminated before birth because his pregnant mother had visited a slaughterhouse, or that he tried to imitate the brutal acts he had read in “dime” novels of the time. The author notes that the boy was also often beaten by his father, which might have inculcated a brutality within him.

   Yet Pomeroy never could, or would, explain his actions, saying either that he didn’t know why he’d done it, or that some inexplicable “something” had “made” him do it.

   Keetley notes that various experts of that era, such as psychiatrists, who analyzed Pomeroy were at pains to try to distance society from him; newspapers cast him as an animal, one with an “insatiable thirst for blood,” as one put it.

   But the author suggests Pomeroy, whose sentence was later commuted to life in prison, was simply a psychopath who revealed the full human potential for violence.

   “The impersonal nonhuman within him was stronger than most people’s,” she writes. “What we hold onto as ‘human’ … is a very fragile thing, perennially coexisting with forces that dispossess us.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.