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The Missing Class Is a Hit
on October 6, 2007
The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America
by Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen
Beacon Press ©? 2007 258 pages
Reviewed by Tony Sipp
Note: Victor Chen mentions me on page 229 of The Missing Class as having been one of his journalistic mentors. I did "teach" and "advise" Victor for four years...But more: I respected and admired him...still do...always will...so...
The Missing Class tells the stories of nine families struggling and working assiduously to do more than keep their heads above water. They all want to earn their rightful place in the "middle class."
The research team and primary authors, my friend Victor and, though I have never met her, Katherine (if I may), are all certified academics.
Every time I come to the work of "certified academics," it is with a twinge of trepidation: The all-too-familiar expectation of a cloistered, pedantic voice speaking to me with hesitant semantics. I dread the first pages.
No worry here.
Victor and Katherine write in a delightfully fresh style which is crystalline without being fragile or precious. In the 1980's and 1990's, mainstream journalism embraced "writing for story." A style I called PHD/CNF: personalized, humanized, dramatized/creative non-fiction. That's their style.
Victor and Katherine tell the nine life stories (presented thematically not familially) in clear, concise, compassionate detail which gives us disturbing yet, at the same time, wonderful biographies.
These nine families are people who have experienced quiet desperation, powerful self-discipline, elation, miscalculation, self-destruction and whatever else composes the human experience.
About halfway through the first chapter, I thought of James Agee's and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. These books, vastly different on the surface, are identical in impact: stark, human, bright.
Poetry is simple, sensuous and passionate. That being so, Victor and Katherine are poets.
But another crucial element of good writing is surprise. At one point, we are engrossed in the story of a family that is struggling with a myriad of troubles and then we learn that one of their daughters...but let Victor and Katherine tell it:
Aaliyah, a junior at Yale, went to a pool party in Brooklyn. Two men, upset that they were being kept out of the private party, forced their way into the building and sprayed the pool area with bullets from a .22-caliber gun. Aaliyah was hit in the neck. By the time she arrived at the hospital the bullet lodged in her chest. The doctor opened her chest, but Aaliyah suffered a stroke and died (91)
The story of a strong, self-actualized single mother who finally gets a job with a good salary but who has to face a new cost:
At the same time, it is important to consider the price exacted by those rising earnings--the disappearance of crucial hours at home, which is all the more costly in the context of uneven child care and troubled schools. Neither the money nor the satisfaction that comes from having a job will help very much if there is no one around to mind the children. (116)
Here is the dilemma: What are "they" to do? What are "we" to do?
Victor and Katherine do not let anyone off easily. They hold everyone accountable for the results of their own actions, but they do understand that they are, in the words of my cousin Charlie, "homo hapless."
The last chapters present some scenarios already in place to help.
What I have taken from this book is a new slant on Pogo's "They is us." They are not the enemy; they are the same as I am--a shaky being trying to make the best of it, not always sure how--but always sure why--because.