Review of Superior: The Return of Race Science, by Angela Saini
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
In what has to be the most shameful decision rendered in the long and otherwise distinguished career of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 1927 the Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell to uphold a compulsory sterilization law in Virginia. The case centered on eighteen-year-old Carrie Buck, confined to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, and Holmes wrote the majority opinion in the near unanimous decision, famously concluding that “three generations of idiots is enough.”
Similar laws prevailed in some thirty-two states, resulting in the forced sterilization of more than 60,000 Americans. Had Carrie lived in Massachusetts, she would have avoided this fate, but she likely would have been condemned to the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded, which—like similar institutions of this era—had its foundation in the eugenics, racism and Social Darwinism of the time that argued that “defectives” with low moral character threatened the very health of the population by breeding others of their kind, raising fears that a kind of contagious degeneracy would permanently damage the otherwise worthy inhabitants of the nation. I have written elsewhere of the horror-show of inhumane conditions and patient abuse at the Belchertown State School, which did not finally close its doors until 1992.
Sterilization was only one chilling byproduct of “eugenics,” a term coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin whose misunderstanding of the principles of Darwinian evolution led to his championing of scientific racism. Eugenics was also the driving force behind the 1924 immigration law that dramatically reduced the number of Jews, Italians, and East Europeans admitted to the United States. White supremacy did not only consign blacks and other people of color to the ranks of the “less developed” races, but specifically exalted those of northern and central European origin as the best and the brightest. This was all pseudoscience of course, but it was quite widely accepted and “respectable” in its day.
Then, along came Hitler and the Holocaust, and more than six million Jews and other “undesirables” were systematically murdered in the name of racial purity. Eugenics was respectable no more. Most of us born in the decades that followed the almost unfathomable horror of that Nazi sponsored genocide may have assumed that race science was finally discredited and disappeared forever, relegated to a blood-spattered dustbin of history. But, as Angela Saini reveals in her well-written, deeply researched, and sometimes startling book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, scientific racism not only never really went extinct, but it has returned in our day with a kind of vengeance, fueling the fever for calls to action on the right for anti-immigration legislation.
Saini, a science journalist, broadcaster, and author with a pair of master’s degrees may be uniquely qualified to tell this story. Born in London of Indian parents, in a world seemingly obsessed with racial classification she relates how her background and brown complexion defies categorization; some may consider her Indian, or Asian—or even black. But of course in reality she could not be more British, even if for many her skin color sets her apart. The UK’s legacy of empire and Kipling’s “white man’s burden” still loom large.
But Superior is not a screed and is not about Saini, but rather about how mistaken notions of race and the pseudoscience of scientific racism have not only persisted but are rapidly gaining ground for a new audience and a new era. To achieve this, the author conducted comprehensive research into the origins of eugenics, but even more significantly identified how the ideology of race science that fueled National Socialism and begat Auschwitz and Birkenau quietly if no less adamantly endured post-Nuremberg cloaked in the less fiery rhetoric of pseudoscientific journals grasping at the periphery of legitimacy. Moreover, a modern revolution in paleogenetics and DNA research that should firmly refute such dangerous musings has instead been incorporated for a new generation of acolytes to scientific racism that serve to both undergird and add a false sense of authenticity to dangerous political tendencies on the right that long simmered and now have burst forth in the public arena.
Whatever some may believe, science has long established that race, for all intents and purposes, is a myth, a social construct that advances no important information about any given population. Regardless of superficial characteristics, all living humans—designated homo sapiens sapiens—are biologically the same and by every other critical metric are essentially members of the same closely related population. In fact, various groups of chimpanzees of Central Africa demonstrate greater genetic diversity than all humans across the globe today. Modern humans likely evolved from a common ancestor in Africa, and thus all of humanity is out of Africa. It is just as likely that all humans once had dark skin, and that lighter skin, what we would term “white” or Caucasian, developed later as populations moved north and melanin—a pigment located in the outer skin layer called the epidermis—was reduced as an adaptation to cope with relatively weak solar radiation in far northern latitudes. The latest scholarship reveals that Europeans only developed their fairer complexion as recently as 8500 years ago!
The deepest and most glaring flaw in the race science that was foundational to Nazism is that it is actually a lack of diversity that often results in a less healthy population. This is not only apparent in the hemophilia that plagued the closely related royal houses of the European monarchies, but on a more macro scale with genetic conditions more common to certain ethnic groups, such as sickle cell disease for those of African heritage, and Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews.
Counterintuitively, modern proponents of race science cherry pick DNA data to attempt to promote superiority for whites that concomitantly assigns a lesser status for people of color, and these concepts are then repackaged to champion policies that limit immigration from certain parts of the world. Once anathema for all but those on the very fringes of the political spectrum, this dangerous rebirth of genetic pseudoscience is now given voice on right-wing media. Worse perhaps, the tendency of mainstream media to promote fairness in what has come to be dubbed “bothsiderism” sometimes offers an underserved platform to those spinning racist dogma in the guise of scientific studies. Of course, social media has now transcended television as a messaging vehicle, and it is far better suited to spreading misinformation, especially in an era given to a mistrust of expertise, thus granting a seat at the table to the unsupported on the same platform with credible fact-based reality, urging the audience to do their own research and come to their own conclusions.
The United States was collectively shaken in 2017 when white supremacists wielding tiki torches marched at Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and shaken once more when then-president Donald Trump subsequently asserted that there “were very fine people, on both sides.” But there was far less outrage the following year when Trump both sounded a dog whistle and startled lawmakers as he wondered aloud why we should allow in more immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa instead of from places like Norway. (Unanswered, of course, is why a person would want to abandon the arguably higher quality of life in Norway to come to the U.S. …) But the volume on such dog whistles has been turned up alarmingly as of late by popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who in between fear-mongering messaging that casts the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and Critical Race Theory (CRT) as Marxist conspiracies that threaten the American way of life, openly advocates against the paranoid alt-right terror of the “Great Replacement” theory, a staple of the white supremacist canon, declaring the Biden administration actively engaged in trying “to change the racial mix of the country … to reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here, and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly-arrived from the third world.” Translation: people of color are trying to supplant white people. Carlson doesn’t cite race science, but he did recently allow comments to go unchallenged by his guest, the racist extremist social scientist Charles Murray, that the “the cognitive demands” of some occupations mean “a whole lot of more white people qualify than Black people.” Superior was published in 2019 but is chillingly prescient about the dangerous trajectory of both racism and race science on the right.
There is a lot of material between the covers of this book, but because Saini writes so well and speaks to the more arcane matters in language comprehensible to a wide audience, it is not a difficult read. Throughout, the research is impeccable and the analysis spot-on. Still, there are moments Saini strays a bit, at one point seeming to speculate whether we should hold back on paleogenetic research lest this data be further perverted by proponents of scientific racism. That is, of course, the wrong approach: the best weapon against pseudoscience remains science itself. Still, the warning bells she sounds here must be heeded. The twin threats of racism and the rebirth of race science into the mainstream are indeed clear and present dangers that must be confronted and combated at every corner. The author’s message is clear and perhaps more relevant now than at any time since the 1930s, another era when hate and racism served as by-products that informed an angry brand of populism that claimed legitimacy through race science. We all know how that ended.
I have written of the Belchertown State School here:
When identifying the “greatest presidents,” historians consistently rank Washington and Lincoln in the top two slots; the third spot almost always goes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served as chief executive longer than any before or since and shepherded the nation through twin existential crises of economic depression and world war. FDR left an indelible legacy upon America that echoes loudly both forward to our present and future as well as back to his day. Lionized by the left today—especially by its progressive wing—far more than he was in his own time, he remains vilified by the right, then and now. Today’s right, which basks in the extreme and often eschews common sense, conflating social security with socialism, frequently casts him as villain. Yet his memory, be it applauded or heckled, is nevertheless of an iconic figure who forever changed the course of American history, for good or ill.
FDR has been widely chronicled, by such luminaries as James MacGregor Burns, William Leuchtenburg, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jay Winik, Geoffrey C. Ward, and a host of others, including presidential biographer Robert Dallek, winner of the Bancroft Prize for Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945. Dallek now revisits his subject with Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, the latest contribution to a rapidly expanding genre focused upon politics and power, showcased in such works as Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and most recently, in George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, by David O. Stewart.
A rough sketch of FDR’s life is well known. Born to wealth and sheltered by privilege, at school he had difficulty forming friendships with peers. He practiced law for a time, but his passion turned to politics, which seemed ideally suited to the tall, handsome, and gregarious Franklin. To this end, he modeled himself on his famous cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt. He married T.R.’s favorite niece, Eleanor, and like Theodore eventually became Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Unsuccessful as a vice-presidential candidate in the 1920 election, his political future still seemed assured until he was struck down by polio. His legs were paralyzed, but not his ambition. He never walked again, but equipped with heavy leg braces and an impressive upper body strength, he perfected a swinging gait that propelled him forward while leaning into an aide that served, at least for brief periods, as a reasonable facsimile of the same. He made a remarkable political comeback as governor of New York in 1928, and won national attention for his public relief efforts, which proved essential in his even more remarkable bid to win the White House four years later. Reimagining government to cope with the consequences of economic devastation never before seen in the United States, then reimagining it again to construct a vast war machine to counter Hitler and Tojo, he bucked tradition to win reelection three times, then stunned the nation with his death by cerebral hemorrhage only a few months into the fourth term of one of the most consequential presidencies in American history.
That “brief sketch” translates into mountains of material for any biographer, so narrowing the lens to FDR’s “political life” proves to be a sound strategy that underscores the route to his many achievements as well as the sometimes-shameful ways he juggled competing demands and realities. Among historians, even his most ardent admirers tend to question his judgment in the run-up to the disaster at Pearl Harbor, as well as his moral compass in exiling Japanese Americans to confinement camps, but as Dallek reveals again and again in this finely wrought study, these may simply be the most familiar instances of his shortcomings. If FDR is often recalled as smart and heroic—as he indeed deserves to be—there are yet plenty of salient examples where he proves himself to be neither. Eleanor Roosevelt once famously quipped that John F. Kennedy should show a little less profile and a little more courage, but there were certainly times this advice must have been just as suitable to her husband. What is clear is that while he was genuinely a compassionate man capable of great empathy, FDR was at the same time at his very core driven by an almost limitless ambition that, reinforced by a conviction that he was always in the right, spawned an ever-evolving strategy to prevail that sometimes blurred the boundaries of the greater good he sought to impose. Shrewd, disciplined, and gifted with finely tuned political instincts, he knew how to balance demands, ideals, and realities to shape outcomes favorable to his goals. He was a man who knew how to wield power to deliver his vision of America, and the truth is, he could be quite ruthless in that pursuit. To his credit, much like Lincoln and Washington before him, his lasting achievements have tended to paper over flaws that might otherwise cling with greater prominence to his legacy.
I read portions of this volume during the 2020 election cycle and its aftermath, especially relevant given that the new President, Joe Biden—born just days after the Battle of Guadalcanal during FDR’s third term—had an oversize portrait of Roosevelt prominently hung in the Oval Office across from the Resolute Desk. But even more significantly, Biden the candidate was pilloried by progressives in the run-up to November as far too centrist, as a man who had abandoned the vision of Franklin Roosevelt. But if the left correctly recalls FDR as the most liberal president in American history, it also badly misremembers Roosevelt the man, who in his day very deftly navigated the politics of the center lane.
Dallek brilliantly restores for us the authentic FDR of his own era, unclouded by the mists of time that has begotten both a greater belligerence from the right as well as a distorted worship from the left. This context is critical: when FDR first won election in 1932, the nation was reeling from its greatest crisis since the Civil War, the economy in a tailspin and his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, unwilling to use the power of the federal government to intervene while nearly a quarter of the nation’s workforce was unemployed, at a time when a social safety net was nearly nonexistent. People literally starved to death in the United States of America! This provoked radical tugs to the extreme left and extreme right. There was loud speculation that the Republic would not survive, with cries by some for Soviet-style communism and by others for a strongman akin to those spearheading an emerging fascism in Europe. It was into this arena that FDR was thrust. Beyond fringe radical calls for revolution or reaction, despite his party’s congressional majority, like Lincoln before him perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest challenge after stabilizing the state was contending with the forces to the left and right in his own party. This, as Dallek details in a well-written, fast-moving narrative, was to be characteristic of much of his long tenure.
In spite of an alphabet soup of New Deal programs that sought to both rescue the sagging economy and the struggling citizen, for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party FDR never went far enough. For conservative Democrats, on the other hand, the power of the state was growing too large and there was far too much interference with market forces. But, as Dallek stresses repeatedly, Roosevelt struggled the most with forces on the left, especially populist demagogues like Huey Long and the antisemitic radio host Father Coughlin. And with the outbreak of World War II, the left was unforgiving when FDR seemed to abandon his commitment to the New Deal to focus on combating Germany and Japan. Today’s democratic socialists may want to claim him as their own, but FDR was no socialist, seeking to reform capitalism rather than replace it, earning Coughlin’s eventual enmity for being too friendly with bankers. At the same time, Republicans obstructed the president at every turn, calling him a would-be dictator. And most wealthy Americans branded him a traitor to his class. There was also an increasingly hostile Supreme Court, which was to ride roughshod over some of FDR’s most cherished programs, including the National Recovery Act (NRA), which was just one of several that were struck down as unconstitutional. We tend to recall the successes such as the Social Security Act that indelibly define FDR’s legacy, yet he endured many losses as well. But while Roosevelt did not win every battle, as Dallek details, only a leader with FDR’s political acumen could have succeeded so often while tackling so much amid a rising chorus of opposition on all sides during such a crisis-driven presidency. If the left in America tends to fail so frequently, it could be because it often fails to grasp the politics of the possible. In this realm, there has perhaps been no greater genius in the White House than Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Fault can be found in Dallek’s book. For one thing, in the body of the narrative he too often namedrops references to other notable Roosevelt chroniclers such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and William Leuchtenburg, which feels awkward given that the author is not some unknown seeking to establish credibility, but Robert Dallek himself, distinguished presidential biographer! And less a flaw than a weakness, despite his skill with a pen in these chapters the reader carefully observes FDR but never really gets to know him intimately. I have encountered this in other Dallek works. If you were, for instance, to juxtapose the Lyndon Johnson biographies of Robert Caro with those by Dallek, Caro’s LBJ colorfully leaps off the page the flesh-and-blood menacing figure who grasps you by the lapels and bends you to his will, while Dallek’s LBJ remains off in the distance. Caro has that gift; Dallek does not.
Still, this is a fine book that marks a significant contribution to the literature. FDR was indeed a giant; there has never been anyone like him in the White House, nor are we likely to ever see a rival. Dallek succeeds in placing Roosevelt firmly in the context of his time, warts and all, so that we can better appreciate who he was and how he should be remembered.
When I first met Ellen Oppenheimer she was in her eighties, a spry woman with a contagious smile and a mischievous teenager’s twinkle in her eyes standing beside her now-late husband Marty on a housecall visit that I made on behalf of the computer services company that I own and operate. But many, many years before that, when she was a very young child, she and her family fled the Nazis, literally one step ahead of a brutal killing machine that claimed too many of her relations, marked for death only because of certain strands of DNA that overlap with centuries of irrational hatred directed at Europeans of Jewish descent.
On subsequent visits, we got to know each other better, and she shared with me bits and pieces of the story of how her family cheated death and made it to America. In turn, I told her of my love of history—and the fact that while I was not raised as a Jew, we had in common some of those same Ashkenazi strands of DNA through my great-grandfather, who fled Russia on the heels of a pogrom. I also mentioned my book blog, and she asked that I bookmark the page on the browser of the custom computer they had purchased from me.
It was on a later housecall, as Marty’s health declined, that I detected shadows intruding on Ellen’s characteristic optimism, and the deep concern for him looming behind the stoic face she wore. But all at once her eyes brightened when she announced with visible pride that she had published a book called Flight to Freedom about her childhood escape from the Nazis. She urged me to buy it and to read it, and she genuinely wanted my opinion of her work.
I did not do so.
But she persisted. On later visits, the urging evolved to something of an admonishment. When I would arrive, she always greeted me with a big hug, as if she was more a grandmother than a client, but she was clearly disappointed that I—a book reviewer no less—had not yet read her book. For my part, my resistance was deliberate. I had too many memories of good friends who pestered me to see their bands playing at a local pub, only to discover that they were terrible. I liked Ellen: what if her book was awful? I did not want to take the chance.
Then, during the pandemic, I saw Marty’s obituary. Covid had taken him. Ellen and Marty had moved out of state, but I still had Ellen’s email, so I reached out with condolences. We both had much to say to each other, but in the end, she asked once more: “Have you read my book yet?” So I broke down and ordered it on Amazon, then took it with me on a week-long birthday getaway to an Airbnb.
Flight to Freedom is a thin volume with a simple all-white cover stamped with only title and author. I brought it with me to a comfortable chair in a great room lined with windows that gave breathtaking views to waves lapping the shore in East Lyme, CT. I popped the cap on a cold IPA and cracked the cover of Ellen’s book. Once I began, all my earlier reluctance slipped away: I simply could not stop reading it.
In an extremely well-written account—especially for someone with virtually no literary background—the author transports the reader back to a time when an educated, affluent middle-class German family overnight was set upon a road of potential extermination in the wake of the Nazi rise to power. Few, of course, believed that a barbarity of such enormity could ever come to pass in 1933, when three-year-old Ellen’s father Adolf was seized on a pretext and jailed. But Grete, Ellen’s mother—the true hero of Flight to Freedom—was far more prescient. In a compelling narrative with a pace that never slows down, we follow the brilliant and intrepid Grete as she more than once engineers Adolf’s release from captivity and serves as the indefatigable engine of her family’s escape from the Nazis, first to Paris, and then later, as war erupted, to Marseille and Oran and finally Casablanca—the iconic route of refugees etched on a map that is splashed across the screen in the classic film featuring Bogart and Bergman.
The last leg then was a Portuguese boat that finally delivered them to safety on Staten Island in 1942. In the passages of Flight to Freedom that describe that voyage, the author cannot disguise her disgust at the contempt displayed shipboard for the less fortunate by those who have purchased more expensive berth, when all were Jews who would of course have found a kind of hideous equality in Germany’s death camps. This was, tragically, the fate of much of Ellen’s extended family who did not heed Grete’s warnings of what might befall them, by those who simply could not believe that such horrors could lurk in their future. Throughout the tale, there is a kind of nuance and complexity one might expect to find in a book by a trained academic or a gifted novelist that instead is delightfully on display by a novice author. Her voice and her pen are both strong from start to finish in this powerful and stirring work.
As a reviewer, can I find some flaws? Of course I can. In the narrative, Ellen treats her childhood character simply as a bystander; the story is instead told primarily through Grete’s eyes. As such, the omniscient point of view often serves as vehicle to the chronicle, with observations and emotions the author could not really know for certain. And sometimes, the point of view shifts awkwardly. But these are quibbles. This is a fine book on so many levels, and the author deserves much praise for telling this story and telling it so well!
A few days after I read Flight to Freedom, I dug into my client database to come up with Ellen’s phone number and rang her up. She was, as I anticipated, thrilled that I had finally read the book, and naturally welcomed my positive feedback. After we chatted for a while, I confessed that my only complaint, if it could be called a complaint, was that the child character of Ellen stood mute much of time in the narrative, and I wondered why she did not relate more of her feelings as a key actor in the drama. With a firm voice she told me (and I am paraphrasing here): “Because it is my mother’s story. It was she who saved our lives. She was the hero for our family.”
I think Grete would be proud of her little girl for telling the story this way, so many decades later. And I’m proud to know Ellen, who shared it so beautifully. Buy this book. Read it. It is a story you need to experience, as well.
I must admit that I knew nothing of the apparently widespread practice of “couchsurfing” before I read Stephan Orth’s quirky, sometime comic, and utterly entertaining travelogue, Behind Putin’s Curtain: Friendships and Misadventures Inside Russia. For the uninitiated, couchsurfing is a global community said to be comprised of more than 14 million members in over 200,000 cities that includes virtually every country on the map. The purpose is to provide free if bare bones lodging for travelers in exchange for forming new friendships and spawning new adventures. The term couchsurfing is an apt one, since frequently the visitor in fact beds down on a couch, although accommodations range from actual beds with sheets and pillowcases to blankets strewn on a kitchen floor—or, as Orth discovers to his amusement, a cot in a bathroom, just across from the toilet! Obviously, if your idea of a good time is a $2000/week Airbnb with a memory foam mattress and a breathtaking view, this is not for you, but if you are scraping together your loose change and want to see the world from the bottom up, couchsurfing offers an unusual alternative that will instantly plug you into the local culture by pairing you up with an authentic member of the community. Of course, authentic does not necessarily translate into typical. More on that later.
Orth, an acclaimed journalist from Germany, is no novice to couchsurfing, but rather a practiced aficionado, who has not only long relied upon it as a travel mechanism but has upped the ante by doing so in distant and out of the ordinary spots like Iran, Saudi Arabia and China, the subjects of his several best-selling books. This time he gives it a go in Russia: from Grozny in the North Caucasus, on to Volgograd and Saint Petersburg, then to Novosibirsk and the Altai Republic in Siberia, and finally Yakutsk and Vladivostok in the Far East. (Full disclosure: I never knew Yakutsk existed other than as a strategic corner of the board in the game of Risk.) All the while Orth proves a keen, non-judgmental observer of peoples and customs who navigates the mundane, the hazardous, and the zany with an enthusiasm instantly contagious to the reader. He’s a fine writer, with a style underscored by impeccable timing, comedic and otherwise, and passages often punctuated with wit and sometime wicked irony. You can imagine him penning the narrative impatiently, eager to work through one paragraph to the next so he can detail another encounter, express another anecdote, or simply mock his circumstances once more, all while wearing a twinkle in his eye and a wry twist to his lips.
Couchsurfing may be routine for the author, but he wisely assumes this is not the case for his audience, so he introduces this fascinating milieu by detailing the process of booking a room. The very first one he describes turns out to be a hilarious online race down various rabbit holes over a sequence of seventy-nine web pages where his utterly eccentric eventual host peppers him with bizarre, even existential observations, and challenges potential guests to fill in various blanks while warning them “that he follows the principle of ‘rational egoism’” and “doesn’t have ten dwarves cleaning up after guests.” [p7] Orth, unintimidated, responds with a wiseass retort and wins the invitation.
Perhaps the most delightful portions of this book are Orth’s profiles of his various hosts, who tend to run the full spectrum of the odd to the peculiar. I say this absent any negative connotation that might otherwise be implied. After all, Einstein and Lincoln were both peculiar fellows. I only mean that the reader, eager to get a taste of local culture, should not mistake Orth’s bunkmates for typical representatives of their respective communities. This makes sense, of course, since regardless of nationality the average person is unlikely to welcome complete strangers into their homes as overnight guests for free. That said, most of his hosts come off as fascinating if unconventional folks you might love to hang out with, at least for a time. And they put as much trust in the author as he puts in them. One couple even briefly leaves Orth to babysit their toddler. Another host turns over the keys of his private dacha and leaves him unattended with his dog.
Of course, the self-deprecating Orth, who seems equally gifted as patient listener and engaging raconteur, could very well be the ideal guest in these circumstances. At the same time, he could also very well be a magnet for the outrageous and the bizarre, as witnessed by the madcap week-long car trip through Siberia he ends up taking with this wild and crazy chick named Nadya that begins when they meet and bond over lamb soup and a spirited debate as to what was the best Queen album, survives a rental car catastrophe on a remote roadway, and winds up with them horseback riding on the steppe. Throughout, with only a single exception, the two disagree about … well … absolutely everything, but still manage to have a good time. If you don’t literally laugh out loud while reading through this long episode, you should be banned for life from using the LOL emoji.
You would think that travel via couchsurfing could very well be dangerous—perhaps less for Orth, who is well over six feet tall and a veteran couchsurfer—but certainly for young, attractive women bedding down in unknown environs. But it turns out that such incidents while not unknown are very, very rare. The couchsurfing community is self-policing: guests and hosts rely on ratings and reviews not unlike those on Airbnb, which tends to minimize if not entirely eliminate creeps and psychos. Still, while 14 million people cannot be wrong, it’s not for everyone. Which leads me to note that the only fault I can find with this outstanding work is its title, Behind Putin’s Curtain, since it has little to do with Putin or the lives led by ordinary Russians: certainly the peeps that Orth runs with are anything but ordinary or typical! I have seen this book published elsewhere simply as Couchsurfing in Russia, which I think suits it far better. Other than that quibble, this is one of the best travel books that I have ever read, and I highly recommend it. And while I might be a little too far along in years to start experimenting with couchsurfing, I admire Orth’s spirit and I’m eager to read more of his adventures going forward.
[Note: the edition of this book that I read was an ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy), as part of an early reviewer’s program.]
Review of Tim & Tigon, by Tim Cope
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
About five years ago, I read what I still consider to be the finest travel and adventure book I have ever come across, On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, by Tim Cope, a remarkable tale of an intrepid young Australian who in 2004 set out on a three-year mostly solo trek on horseback across the Eurasian steppe from Mongolia to Hungary—some 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles)—roughly retracing routes followed by Genghis Khan and his steppe warriors. An extraordinary individual, Cope refused to carry a firearm, despite warnings against potential predators of the animal or human kind to menace an untested foreigner alone on the vast and often perilous steppe corridor, instead relying on his instincts, personality, and determination to succeed, regardless of the odds. Oh, and those odds seem further stacked against him because despite his outsize ambition, he is quite an inexperienced horseman—in fact his only previous attempt on horseback as a child left him with a broken arm! Nevertheless, his only companions for the bulk of the journey ahead would be three horses—and a dog named Tigon foisted upon him against his will that would become his best friend.
My 2016 review of On the Trail of Genghis Khan—which Cope featured on his website for a time—sparked an email correspondence between us, and shortly after publication he sent me an inscribed copy of his latest work, Tim & Tigon, stamped with Tigon’s footprints. I’m always a little nervous in these circumstances: what if the new book falls short? As it turned out, such concerns were misplaced; I enjoyed it so much I bought another copy to give as a gift!
In Kazakhstan, early in his journey, a herder named Aset connived to shift custody of a scrawny six-month-old puppy to Cope, insisting it would serve both as badly needed company during long periods of isolation as well as an ally to warn against wolves. The dog, a short-haired breed of hound known as a tazi, was named Tigon, which translates into something like “fast wind.” Tim was less than receptive, but Aset was persuasive: “In our country dogs choose their owners. Tigon is yours.” [p89] That initial grudging acceptance was to develop into a critical bond that was strengthened again and again during the many challenges that lay ahead. In fact, Tim’s connection with Tigon came to represent the author’s single most significant relationship in the course of this epic trek. Hence the title of this book.
Tim & Tigon defies simple categorization. On one level, it is a compact re-telling of On the Trail of Genghis Khan, but it’s not simply an abridged version of the earlier book. Styled as a Young Adult (YA) work, it has appeal to a much broader audience. And while it might be tempting to brand it as some kind of heartwarming boy and his dog tale, it is marked by a much greater complexity. Finally, as with the first book, it is bound to frustrate any librarian looking to shelve it properly: Is it memoir? Is it travel? Is it adventure? Is it survival? Is it a book about animals? It turns out to be about all of these and more.
As the title suggests, the emphasis this time finds focus upon the unique connection that develops between a once reluctant Tim and the dog that becomes nothing less than his full partner in the struggle to survive over thousands of miles of terrain marked by an often-hostile environment that frequently saw extreme temperatures of heat and cold, conditions both difficult and dangerous, as well as numerous obstacles. But despite the top billing neither Tim nor Tigon are the main characters here. Instead, as the narrative comes to reveal again and again, the true stars of this magnificent odyssey are the land and its peoples, a sometimes-forbidding landscape that hosts remarkably resilient, enterprising, and surprisingly optimistic folks—clans, families and individuals that are ever undaunted by highly challenging lifeways that have their roots in centuries-old customs.
Stalin effectively strangled their traditional nomadic ways in the former Soviet Union by enforcing borders that were unknown to their ancestors, but he never crushed their collective spirit. And long after the U.S.S.R went out of business, these nomads still thrive, their orbits perhaps more circumscribed, their horses and camels supplemented—if not supplanted—by jeeps and motorbikes. They still make their homes in portable tents known as yurts, although these days many sport TV sets served by satellite and powered by generators. The overwhelming majority welcome the author into their humble camps, often with unexpected enthusiasm and outsize hospitality, generously offering him food and shelter and tending to his animals, even as many are themselves scraping by in conditions that can best be described as hardscrabble. The shared empathy between Cope and his hosts is marvelously palpable throughout the narrative, and it is this authenticity that distinguishes his work. It is clear that Tim is a great listener, and despite how alien he must have appeared upon arrival in these remote camps, he quickly establishes rapport with men, women, children, clan elders—the old and the young—and remarkably repeats this feat in Mongolia, in Kazakhstan, in Russia, and beyond. This turns out to be his finest achievement: his talents with a pen are evident, to be sure, but the story he relates would hardly be as impressive if not for that element.
When Tim’s amazing journey across the steppe ended in Hungary in 2007, joy mingled with a certain melancholy at the realization that he would have to leave Tigon behind when he returned home. But the obstacles of a an out-of-reach price tag and a mandatory quarantine were eventually overcome, and a little more than a year later, Tigon joined Tim in Australia. Tigon went on to sire many puppies and lived to a ripe old age before, tragically, the dog that once braved perils large and small on the harsh landscapes of the Eurasian steppe fell before the wheels of a speeding car on the Australian macadam. Tim was devastated by his loss, so this book is also, of course, a tribute to Tigon. My signed copy is inscribed with the Kazakh saying that served as a kind of ongoing guidepost to their trek together: “Trust in fate … but always tie up the camel.” That made me smile, but that smile was tinged with sadness as I gazed upon Tigon’s footprint stamped just below it. Tigon is gone, but he left an indelible mark not only on Tim, who perhaps still grieves for him, but also upon every reader, young and old, who is touched by his story.
[I reviewed Tim Cope’s earlier book here: Review of: On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, by Tim Cope]