An American Dream

It’s hard to put down this unusual biographical narrative by a Korean War veteran and POW who elected to settle in China after the war rather than return to the low horizons available to African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era South.

Clarence Adams after Korean War
Author, veteran and POW Clarence Adams after the Korean War.

Twelve years later, after earning a degree at Beijing University, working for years as a translator for the government publishing enterprise, and developing sincere friendships with Chinese colleagues, Clarence Adams left China during the Cultural Revolution when intellectuals, teachers and writers were attacked by gangs of Chinese youths encouraged by Chairman Mao to make a “permanent revolution.”

He returned to the United States in 1966 and may as well have stepped barefoot into a minefield.  In the U.S. some media outlets distorted his actions and played to the quick prejudices of the public confused by rapid social change and the numbing carnage of the Viet-Nam War. Adams and the twenty other American POWs who had elected not to return to the United States after the end of the Korean War had already been tried and condemned as traitors by the media and popular opinion, even though the treaty that ended the war included a clause permitting prisoners of war to choose any country for repatriation.  Adams returns to this point throughout the book.  He explains that by staying in China after release from the war prisoner camps, he was given the opportunity for education and professional experience that would not be open to him in the United States at that time.

Adams grew up in a clearly defined segregated South in a Memphis family used to dealing with the harsh economic and political realities of segregation and discrimination.  He learned to hustle for extra tips at a hotel job by playing up to people’s need to feel important. Then came the call for soldiers to fight in Korea.

Though the segregated military was supposed to be a thing of the past by 1948, it took years for the entrenched military to change.  Various encounters in the military underlined the defacto segregation in the North that led Malcolm X to this statement:  “The Mason Dixon line begins at the Canadian border.”

The Chinese entered the Korean War, surprising US troops fed on Thanksgiving turkey and incomplete information from their US superiors.  Adams observes a black regiment providing cover for white troops escaping enemy fire, leaving no cover for the African- American soldiers.  This event distilled into Adams’ a life long protest:  though blacks in America lived in a climate of distain, were denied equal opportunity and basic human rights, they were shipped off to fight America’s wars.

An American DreamIn An American Dream, Adams writes of harrowing scenes of capture by Chinese troops, the march on iced roads to prison Camp 5 near Pyuktong and the near-starvation of the captured Americans. His narrative includes acts of kindness by the Chinese captors, but Adams is politically aware and knows that getting out alive will require communicating with the army prison officials.  During the march to their permanent prison Adams couldn’t keep up with the main column of prisoners.  Weak POWs who lagged behind were being shot, so Adams bargained for his life, begging to be allowed to start out early on the march and continue slowly to the next night’s camp behind the main column. He lost toes on one foot; he didn’t sleep, but he made it to the camp. Though afraid he might be branded a collaborator, months later, Adams stepped forward when the Chinese asked for representatives from the prisoner ranks to work with them to improve camp conditions.

After the war, Adams and 20 other American POWs (three African-Americans including Adams) elected to settle in China, some, like Adams, were placed in university degree programs, others were given factory jobs.  All, according to Adams just wanted a better life than what they knew would be waiting for them back in the US.  Vilified by the press, the 21 American POWs had varying degrees of success in China. Adams explains his choice:  “I might not have known what China was really like before going there, but I certainly knew what life was like for blacks in America, and especially in Memphis.”  (P.64)

Adams married a Chinese woman, they had two children, and he finished university and worked as a translator for the Foreign Language Press.  During the Vietnam War Adams spoke on Radio Hanoi appealing to black American soldiers to think about their position in the war, suggesting they should be fighting for their own civil rights back home.  The broadcast to American soldiers in Vietnam was used as grounds for a summons to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which dropped the charges after questioning Adams for a week in camera.

After 12 years in China, Adams decided to return to his homeland.  The Cultural Revolution had begun with unprovoked attacks on westerners, beatings and incarceration of educated people and intellectuals, not to mention, widespread destruction of art and cultural artifacts.  When his employer told him to leave the Foreign Language Press and work in a distant factory, Adams knew his run of good relations with the Communist government was over.

An American Dream

By Clarence Adams

Edited by Della Adams and Lewis H. Carlson

University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, 2007. 176 pages.


Already Home: Topography of Spirit and Place

Already Home  ::  A Topography of Spirit and Place  

Barbara Gates searches her backyard for personal meaning, exploring what’s hidden behind the obvious.

Lotus blossom symbol.
Lotus blossom symbol.

A neighbor on her Berkeley, California street has started sleeping in Gates’ car to avoid household turmoil.  Gates tolerates the backseat sleepovers, though other middle-class neighbors object that she’s encouraging bad elements .  Reminds me of the hilarious (and bittersweet) Alan Bennett novella The Lady in the Van.

The woman seeking refuge in the backseat of a car and other events propel Barbara Gates to investigate the street where she lives and the extended neighborhood.

What starts out as a tentative exploration of self and the meaning of home broadens as the author gains confidence in the mission.  She notices drug dealing on the street, the poverty of certain neighbors contrasted with the prosperity of others.  She explores abandoned industrial facilities  a few blocks from her door.

The narrative includes high and low crises in her life (a rat in the kitchen, raising a daughter, cancer) and chronicles her aperture to the broader world.  She learns about herself by exploring the neighborhood; and that’s when the story becomes more engaging.

The glamour of meditation. Image:
Glamour of meditation?

It threatens at first to be another slightly irritating Oh-poor-me-and-my-inner-life narrative (the Eat, Pray, Love genre) from a privileged person.  What a change when they jump off the meditation cushion and notice the world, or even where their feet fall.   In contrast with her neighbors, the author can read, has a stable home life, an income and time to meditate.  What’s her problem, a reader wonders, at the mention of a rat in the kitchen?  The rat turns out to be a linking device jolting the ecology of  the neighborhood, like street crime and encroaching development.  The book turns interesting once the inner-gazing and self-glazing ends and Gates notices the windows, street, people and neighborhood.

The author is cofounder and coeditor of the Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind.  She is brave enough to show the process of how she opens to the world.  She explains and exhumes the history of her house and surroundings, then realizes the lesson is simply to let go of the past and embrace her present life there.


Daily Om

Yoga Journal

Interview with Barbara Gates

Book information:  Shambala, Boston & London,  2003,  229 pages,  $21.95 hardcover,  ISBN: 1570624909

This review appeared in a slightly different format in The Bloomsbury Review.

Montana Surrounds Him

Montana Surround

Land, Water, Nature and Place

By: Phil Condon

Johnson Books, Boulder, Co.

2004, 192 pages

ISBN 1-55566-354-0

$15.00 paperback

Mixed in with this memoir of growing up and moving out, of coming back and forging bonds of place, the author deals with big issues like the relationships between people and land, animals and each other.

Condon teaches in the graduate program of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana, and the University sponsors an Environmental Writing Institute in Missoula.  He’s knit together the threads of his life that range through Nebraska, California, Missouri, British Columbia and Montana.  He uses the stark memories of his past to ponder the present.

From a session of work in a meat slaughter packing plant, Condon examines his choices and intentions.  He muses that he still eats meat and enjoys it, yet resolves to slow his actions to include due process and consideration when he is consuming meat. How cash has disappeared from the equation of purchase.

Not a sentimentalist, he admits to tree cutting (for heat during a bitter winter in British Columbia) as well as tree hugging and planting.  Condon doesn’t shy from tough facts:    toxic industrial pollutants and pesticides used in agriculture are found everywhere on the planet.  There are no pristine places.

A man enchanted with real snow, Condon likes winter because “it slows down most things modern and mechanistic… and I like snow because it covers everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  To me, it’s always seemed the coldest, cleanest grace.”

The domed snow-scapes that some people collect are a metaphor for life on earth.  His first wife, with whom he homesteaded in the Ozarks, worries that they’re living inside “one of those snowy paperweights…idyllic from the outside, but if we start looking past each other, through each other, there’s nothing to keep us from becoming invisible…” (p. 15)

Condon mentions a fortune telling ball, “a heavy glass sphere, flattened on both ends and wrapped in gold-colored foil.  The glass opened on a murky maroon interior. You’d ask a question and shake it, and one of twelve stock answers would rise to the top.”  (p. 175)

He writes: “Pick up the snow scene in its small round globe of glass.  Shake it and smile.  Watch the show settle and the scene change.  It’s fun to do the shaking.  And it’s also fun to imagine being one of the figures.  The truth is that, to a greater or lesser degree, we’ve always been both the shaker and the shaken.  And now, if we never have before, we know it.” (p. 141)

by L. Peat O’Neil

 This review appeared in The Bloomsbury Review, a wonderful book paper. Subscribe!

Kentucky Sweet Apples

This review appeared in the grass-roots book newspaper The Bloomsbury Review.  Subscribe!

A Taste of the Sweet Apple
Book Cover

A Taste of the Sweet Apple

By: Jo Anna Holt Watson

Sarabande Books, Louisville, Ky

2004, 232 pages

ISBN 1-932511-08-3

paperback $14.95

Jo Anna Holt Watson’s memoir of growing up during the 1940’s is a terrific book for reading clubs and book groups.  It was made into a popular  television series on Kentucky Educational Television.

The story unfolds in Kentucky vernacular through the voices of the authentic characters that populated her childhood.  The author shows a way of life gone by, a time when tobacco farming, horse husbandry, bourbon “sweetners” on the porch and neighbors who knew one another were her family’s status quo.  The story meanders along like easy meal at the picnic table under the shade trees or a bareback ride along a creek.

Holt recounts funny stories like her fulsome Aunt Tott tugging into a Platex girdle one humid Kentucky August.  We learn about her mother, Sallie Gay, who was continually dismayed that her daughter prefered riding the John Deere, learning to spit and sampling varmit stew to starched dresses and hair ribbons.  Holt is kind to the memory of her dad, ‘Doc’ Holt, a country doctor prone to crazy fits and soon dead of a coronary.

The young girl’s hero is Joe Collins, the combination farm manager and body servant who takes care of  ‘Doc’ when he goes wild. No need to reveal how this memoir closes; the going is the point.  Let’s hope Jo Anna Holt Watson writes more books about Kentucky because this tasty-tart mix of family life is a fine start.

Edge of a Changing World

A Gathering of Stones – Journeys to the Edges of a Changing World

A Gathering of Stones
Book Cover

Carol Ann Bassett

Oregon State University Press

Corvallis, Or. 2002

ISBN 0-87071-545-3

120 pages, no index.

$12.95 paperback

Carol Ann Bassett, the author of A Gathering of Stones and a professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication,  sure does get around.  The book covers journeys to Ecuador, the Northwest Territories of Canada, the Mojave, the Kalahari Desert in Africa, and other outposts around the globe.

Bassett’s writing and subject matter appeals to the thoughtful traveler. In the first chapter, Calling Down the Moon, she offers a lucid explanation of the geologic evolution of the Sonora Desert, the birthing of the west, its plants, volcanoes and stones.  Her writing is engaging, not always an easy task when explaining geology and botany.

A few of the journeys occurred a number of years ago and could have profited from factual updates.  For example, in the compelling account of a 10-day shepherding trek across Arizona with immigrant Basque herders in 1986, Bassett skillfully captures the men’s wistful lonely life and their crusty exteriors.  She reports that the men come from their Spanish Basque homelands to work a few years (or longer) on contract with the Western Ranger Association. It’s not revealed whether any of herders are working there now or whether other men are still arriving from Basque lands to herd in the American west.

Geoglyphs, which are rock alignments and giant figures created by indigenous peoples, are best seen from the air.  Bassett describes some of these monuments in the Mojave located inside U.S. Army training compounds.  Quite possibly the rock figures have been defaced by routine weapons firing.  The rocks were sacred relics for first peoples of the lower Colorado River region, yet we don’t know the current condition of the rock alignments or whether scientists who want to study them are still forbidden entry to the military area. Such mindless institutional desecration is difficult to read about.  Perhaps that is Bassett’s intent: to send the curious reader to the Internet to research the status of these cultural relics.

Bassett tackles the downside of nature tourism, which can deposit hundreds of visitors a day in fragile habitats such as the Galapagos Islands.  She discusses the inveterate laxity of enforcement even though protective laws may be in place.

Though all of the chapters offer sleek writing about important subjects, the facts are sometimes left open ended.  Perhaps this serves brevity, but the absence of fact grounding and updates reveals the previous incarnation of many of the chapters — as newspaper and magazine feature content for travel consumers hunting down fresh exotica. Collected in book format, the older journeys would be more meaningful for a contemporary reader if current conditions in these threatened regions had also been examined, at least as brief epilogues.

In the chapter Where Butterflies are Souls, Bassett paints a detailed portrait of the Tarahumara people and handily compares the Aztec Day of the Dead celebrations with a gloomy Catholic mass.  This second largest (Navaho nation is larger) indigenous American population north of Mexico City experiences socio-cultural stress from clear-cutting of forests for lumber and abandonment of their traditional practices in favor of work in the lumber mills. Attentive readers will also get the message that the indigenous people are also affected by the intrusion of ethno-tourists who pack into eco-lodges to observe the Tarahumara ways.

In other chapters, Bassett bravely discusses the issue. Ethno tourism may provide survival revenue for tribal peoples near extinction, but at what cost? It is demeaning to the natives and tourists alike as the visiting westerners peer at household rituals of fire making, eating and washing.  Are we to stop traveling, stop the momentum of progress?

Curious readers will want to do further research to investigate the outcomes of these threatened locations and peoples.  The collection is a solemn drumbeat, a wake for vanishing people, regions and cultures.

Book review by L. Peat O’Neil was published in excellent book newspaper The Bloomsbury Review.

Peat O’Neil is a writing instructor and author of Travel Writing: See the World, Sell the Story published by Writer’s Digest Books.

Wandering :: Questing

This similar version of this review appeared in the grass-roots book newspaper The Bloomsbury Review.  Subscribe!

Wherever I Wander

Wherever I Wander
Book Cover

Judith Azrael

Impassio Press, Seattle, Wa.

2004, 302 pages

$17. paperback

ISBN 0-9711583-4-7

When I picked up Judith Azrael’s collection of essays, I wondered if this would be another memoir by another lyrical questing Buddhist watching the self in stillness and motion.  After all, that “I” in the title portends self-involvement.

Instead, this reader entered a world of meticulous attention to the other. Azreal constructs  clear portraits of the other consciousnesses — people, animals, environments — that she encounters.  The author spends her words carefully, crafting details that compose places; her writing is grounded in sensual information.  Though she reveals herself ever so gradually, the real focus of the book is on the other, whether that other is an abandoned baby seal, a group of prisoners, a house or the sea.

Review by L. Peat O’Neil

Resources for Book Groups and Readers:

Quotes and Fragments from the book.