Hello from New Hampshire | Everything is Fine on 2020-02-07

Dispatch from NH Primary, Recent Piece, Book Update

New Hampshire Primaries 

I’m up in New Hampshire to file a pair of dispatches on the primary race. In the first, I write here for Tablet about the Iowa caucus, Deval Patrick, the unsettled Democratic platform, Pete Buttigieg, a Jew from Long Island, and Joe Biden. 

“Patrick’s presentation is muddled, and brings to mind Dylan’s line about the worthless foam of the mouth—it’s too removed from the omnipresent culture war and too diffuse on how he’d overcome Trumpism, but it’s instructive in its lack of clarity, like a photo negative that suggests another image, his talk of his close ties to Obama, being “bold and humble” on climate change, the resurrection of the middle class, of public decorum and decency, it’s a grab bag of sentences pulled from the pre-Trump Democratic platform mixed with the new language of a party that hasn’t coalesced yet around its Trump-era identity.”

Read more…

In the next piece I’ll likely begin the coverage with how the State of the Union played in New Hampshire, and run through the key moments that will shape the primary vote next Tuesday. 

Recent Piece

Just before the end of the year I wrote a piece on Fieldston, the elite private school in New York, about the various ways in which, to summarize with a broad brush, the tensions between progressives and conservatives are manifesting on campus. 

For generations Fieldston has been a reliable gatekeeper for New York’s wealthy families, Jewish and otherwise, through which their children could pass before moving on to elite American colleges and professional circles. But Fieldston has recently presented a rash of problems for its Jewish students and parents, and there’s a feeling amongst them that their concerns have been ignored or rebuffed by too many people in the school’s administration. 

Since the story came out, the New York Times picked up the thread with an update on a teacher who was fired in the fallout to some of the events I covered in my piece. 

More recently there was a piece in Jewish Currents about that same teacher but it curiously ignores the larger context around that teacher’s dismissal and goes on to speculate without presenting evidence as to why exactly the teacher was dismissed. 

Namely, it fails to address the well-documented recurrence of anti-Semitism and Jewish hostilities experienced over the past several years by Jewish members of the community, and the difficulty they’ve had in obtaining an adequate response from school officials.

As I reported in my piece, I came to verify these incidents after speaking to two dozen parents of current and past students, as well as multiple current faculty members and administrators. The Jewish Current author interviewed only the fired teacher, an unnamed parent, and an activist with no formal relationship to the school. I’m not sure how you can accurately report on what’s going on in an academic institution without interviewing other faculty members, admins, or a range of parents, but I suppose that’s why the piece speaks with what’s such a flimsy grasp of the facts at hand. 

Book News

Last November, right before Thanksgiving, I went out to Missouri for a long and thankfully productive reporting trip for BLOOD CRIES OUT, my forthcoming book from Penguin. 

Here’s the haul of documents I shipped back to my office:

The story builds upon what I first wrote in November 2018 for The Atavist, about two families in northwestern Missouri who become embroiled in a decades-long feud after the 1990 murder of one of the family’s matriarchs. In short, that story covers the time of the murder to the subsequent trial and eventual conviction of one of the other family’s sons. It explains what happened when that son’s lawyer eventually convinced the Missouri Supreme Court to overturn his sentence, in 2013, and how the case remains, effectively, unsolved today.

Much of what the book expands upon is the social and economic conditions that in small and large ways had radically altered life for farming communities like those where this murder took place, in a town called Chillicothe.

My hope is that it shows how profoundly the boom of the late 1970s and the bust of the 1980s farm crisis changed the lived experience for farmers across the midwest. How this time of unprecedented change in American agriculture and economic polices redefined the relationship between neighbors, farmers, local law enforcement, and state attorneys and politicians.

Beyond the hunt for documents and interviews conducted across Missouri, I spent a good amount of time on a farm to learn more about how family farming has evolved over the past 50 years. (The photo below is of two of that family’s grain silos, filled with the soybeans that will account for most of their annual income.) I’d done this before on previous reporting trips as well and the successive tours of the land, equipment, and study of farming techniques and processes has been helpful for me to understand this narrative.

I also had the chance to visit with Roger Allison, a founder of the Missouri Rural Crisis center, which was one of the more active organizations that brought the nation’s attention to the farming families that were foreclosing their properties by the tens of thousands throughout the 1980’s. 

Roger and a host of others were part of a 70-day protest on the main street of Chillicothe, an event I was surprised to learn about only this past year. To drum up publicity, they took over the parking lot of a federal loan office and eventually staged a rally with John Cougar Mellencamp, which brought about 10,000 spectators from across the region.

These are mainly reference materials for me but you can see here in the photographs of their Chillicothe satellite office the walls are pasted in long strips of paper, dozens and dozens of foreclosure notices the local farmers received from their farm banks. By the end of the crisis, which was then called then the Midwestern Great Depression, some 700,000 farmers (not families, but actual head-of-household farmers) lost their family land.

The crisis center was instrumental in providing those farmers with basic living materials, food and toiletries (as seen in the second image below), as well as some money to help them survive the crisis.

Roger was kind enough to show me the archives of the rural crisis center, all while cooking up an amazing meal for us and the farmhands who were helping him rebuild his cattle fences.


Rather than end on the low note of the crisis foreclosures, I’ll post a few of the photos I picked up from the archives of the county library in Chillicothe. The archivist there was incredibly generous with her time and help, scanning a sizable volume of slides that offer a little glimpse into life in Chillicothe over the past 75 years.


Thanks for reading Everything is Fine, an occasional newsletter on new stories, reporting trips, and book news. If you were forwarded this email and want to subscribe, you can do so at the link below.

Cheers,

Sean