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Jean Pfaelzer - Driven Out

While the contents of this book were interesting and previously unknown to me, even though I have lived in or visited most of the cities discussed, there is something wrong with this book. The problem isn't really entirely the author's fault as the documentation of these events isn't great. But I had the feeling as I read Driven Out that I wasn't getting the full story, that the story was frequently in error, and that those--on both sides--who actually lived the tale that Pfaelzer weaves would find her snapshot of events riddled with inaccuracies.

Near the end of the book, Pfaelzer almost admits as much when she says

"Given the early condition of the telegraph, often downed by wind and storms, the lack of trains to carry newspapers, the irregular publication and name changes of rural newspapers, and the time lapses between events and reportage in nineteenth-century journalism, there may be small inconsistencies or inaccuracies." (p. 254)
As I was reading through this book, whenever something that didn't seem quite right popped up, I checked the footnote. Of the dozens of footnotes I checked, well over 90% referenced newspaper articles from the 19th Century. Having been quoted several times in newspaper articles in the 21st Century--articles that almost always distorted or completely misrepresented the truth I have no trust in the current media to provide an accurate picture of events. I have a hard time believing that things were better a hundred and thirty years ago. In fact, I'd be willing to bet they were much worse. Therefore, although I somewhat enjoyed reading this book, it was a troublesome read as I never felt like I could trust its contents.

One error really jumped out at me. On page 46, Pfaelzer claims that the Golden Spike was driven in at Provo, Utah to link the transcontinental railroad. As someone who lived in Provo for five years I can attest to that not being the case. Later in the book she gets it right by stating that it happened at Promontory Summit. Such sloppiness in research and details, though, doesn't sit well with this reader.

In short, if you are interested in a story of ethnic cleansing that happened in the USA other than that of the natives and you are willing to suspend disbelief at times (sort of like going to one of those "based on a true story" movies that you know is very inaccurate) then you should check this book out.

from the publisher:
The brutal and systematic "ethnic cleansing" of Chinese Americans in California and the Pacific Northwest in the second half of the nineteenth century is a shocking -- and virtually unexplored -- chapter of American history. Driven Out unearths this forgotten episode in our nation's past. Drawing on years of groundbreaking research, Jean Pfaelzer reveals how, beginning in 1849, lawless citizens and duplicitous politicians purged dozens of communities of thousands of Chinese residents -- and how the victims bravely fought back.

In town after town, as races and classes were pitted against one another in the raw and anarchic West, Chinese miners and merchants, lumberjacks and field-workers, prostitutes and merchants' wives, were gathered up at gunpoint and marched out of their homes, sometimes thrown into railroad cars along the very tracks they had built.

Here, in vivid detail, are unforgettable incidents such as the torching of the Chinatown in Antioch, California, after Chinese prostitutes were accused of giving seven white boys syphilis, and a series of lynchings in Los Angeles bizarrely provoked by a Chinese wedding. From the port of Seattle to the mining towns in California's Siskiyou Mountains to "Nigger Alley" in Los Angeles, the first Chinese Americans were hanged, purged, and banished. Chinatowns across the West were burned to the ground.

But the Chinese fought back: They filed the first lawsuits for reparations in the United States, sued for the restoration of their property, prosecuted white vigilantes, demanded the right to own land, and, years before Brown v. Board of Education, won access to public education for their children. In order to starve out towns that tried to expel them, Chinese Americans organized strikes and refused to sell vegetables. They ordered arms from China and, with Winchester rifles and Colt revolvers, defended themselves. In 1893, more than 100,000 Chinese Americans refused the government's order to wear photo identity cards to prove their legal status -- the largest mass civil disobedience in United States history to that point.

Driven Out features riveting characters, both heroic and villainous, white and Asian. Charles McGlashan, a newspaper editor, spearheaded a shift in the tactics of persecution, from brutality to legal boycotts of the Chinese, in order to mount a run for governor of California. Fred Bee, a creator of the Pony Express, became the Chinese consul and one of the few attorneys willing to defend the Chinese. Lum May, a dry goods store owner, saw his wife dragged from their home and driven insane. President Grover Cleveland, hoping that China's 400,000 subjects would buy the United States out of its economic crisis, persuaded China to abandon America's Chinese in return for a trade treaty. Quen Hing Tong, a merchant, sought an injunction against the city of San Jose in an important precursor to today's suits against racial profiling and police brutality.

In Driven Out, Jean Pfaelzer tells the unknown story of immigrants who, under assault, stood up for their own civil rights and the civil rights of others. This is an account of racial pogroms, purges, roundups, and brutal terror, but also a record of valiant resistance and community. This deeply resonant and eye-opening work documents a significant and disturbing episode in American history. It is a story that defines us as a nation and marks our history and humanity. [an error occurred while processing this directive]