A few months ago I was visiting Lawrence, Kansas for work, and I took the opportunity to duck into a lovely little bookstore called “The Raven Book Store.” Lawrence is an awesome little college town, a liberal enclave in the middle of Kansas. It’s picturesque, and the downtown, despite being home to some aggressive parking attendants, is charming and worth a visit.
While at the Raven, I picked up two books, one called “The Big Truck That Went By.” (The other is “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which I’ll review later.) I’d seen “Big Truck” a few places, and it is a testament to what a noticeable cover can do to help sell a book. The book has a young Haitian girl sitting on a bench looking out at a valley of what must be a hundred shanties, a tent city. You see the book and immediately wonder what is going on. The subtitle of the book is “How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.”
Jonathan Katz is the author, and at the time of the Haitian earthquake in January of 2010, he was the AP reporter in Haiti. The book is not a difficult read; AP reporters write for the masses, and that informative and easy to consume style suits this book well. Haiti is another world to most Americans and Katz struggles mightily in this book to help introduce us to our neighbor. He does it well.
The book is not just a story about Haiti, its history, its people, the earthquake, the rebuilding, and politics. It is all of that. It is also a biting critique of relief efforts in general, and that was probably the most eye-opening part. Katz becomes disillusioned by the American and global relief efforts. One point seemed to stick with me (I read the book a few months ago), and it was that western governments hesitated to send money directly to the Haitian government because of widespread fears of corruption. And while Katz points out there is plenty of corruption in Haiti, he does a nice send up of how the American government might be perceived to an outsider. It might be American-style, but it doesn’t take a big leap to see how we could be perceived as incredibly corrupt too. Presented with our own hypocrisy, Katz says that by propping up ill-prepared NGOs, many still in their infancy, we are only making Haitian self-governance issues worse. Faced with such insurmountable problems, the government stays weak, leaders cannot lead, and the infrastructure becomes overly reliant on the NGOs. It means things won’t get better anytime soon.
There is an clear criticism in the work of NGOs in “The Big Truck That Went By.” Money drives much of the problem, but so does cultural misunderstanding. It’s not all bad though. Katz introduces us to people who very literally gave their lives to save others. There might be a better way, but until then, we must applaud and honor those who do much more than text a donation, they go straight to the worst possible location and bandage the injured and feed the hungry. I was glad that Katz appropriately recognized them.
The politics in Haiti were key to the story. As a backdrop, Katz covers a presidential election that, for a time, involved Wyclef Jean (!) and several other colorful characters. Katz makes the election as interesting as any of ours.
This book is one other thing: a memoir. Katz nearly dies in the earthquake and instantly rushes to cover the story for the better part of a year. He has a difficult relationship with his colleague, Evens, a “fixer, who works for the AP. They are friends and their work relationship requires trust that is tested. We get a glimpse of Katz in therapy, dealing with post-traumatic stress. And almost sheepishly, Katz introduces another relationship. Through the course of the book, he falls, very sweetly, in love with Claire. The memoir part could easily have been omitted in favor of a straight piece of journalism and commentary on Haiti and the earthquake relief. But I’m glad it wasn’t. This was a personal story for Katz, and opening a window into what he was going through during the crisis added to the book.
I don’t know that this wound up on any bestseller lists and it’s unlikely to wind up in many casual book clubs, but it is definitely worth a read. The distance from Miami to Haiti is less than from Cincinnati to Boston, and it’s plain that we are woefully uninformed about our neighbors. If you feel like you want to meet your neighbors and understand what they are going through, this is a good place to start.
Thanks for reading.