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Tell No Lies Paperback – July 22, 2014
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The individual and shared political engagement of lead characters James, Carolyn and Mary Lou, flows naturally. It is central to the story, precipitates the opening action and each step in James’ flight. Like me, you might Google Nyame Jones (to see if he really existed) and end up spending a couple of hours reading about the Black Power movement, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, the Black Panthers, COINTELPRO. As the reader accompanies Mary Lou’s painstaking preparations for the big march – sending Carolyn into the camps to convince each strike breaker to march, arranging meals for hundreds of people – you will want to know more about Cesar Chavez and the horrific working conditions on American farms that he fought to change. Knowing that Carolyn’s communist mom inspired her to risk her own freedom in order to help ex-boyfriend James, will compel the reader to know more about McCarthyism.
The reader of Tell No Lies is privy to a world in which peoples’ everyday lives find resonance in the words of assassinated African freedom fighter Amilcar Cabral: “Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories…” When James asks Carolyn what that means she answers: Nothing is simple, that’s what it means.
Tell No Lies doesn’t take the simple route. It does not slough over tensions between white liberal thought and the Black Power movement; interracial couples; armed vs. non-violent resistance; the Mexican and Black communities in California, circa 1974. Nor does it give a pass to the moral ambiguity of lying even for a worthy cause, or the difficulties of an unplanned pregnancy. The main characters each struggle to reconcile their own political ideology to understanding – or accepting – the other’s struggle. From the first page, the reader knows that there will be no happy ending to Tell No Lies, because life is not simple. What the reader can’t anticipate are the soaring moments of the book that come when James, Carolyn and Mary Lou find peace around the green Formica kitchen table at the quiet house on Joseph Street.
Like birds that had just found their branch, they shifted their weight together, then settled.
I had a nerdy appreciation for her structural flourishes, like the way the points of view are separated by chapter at the beginning but gradually get braided together, or the one-chapter tense change for an important jump in time, or the license she takes, in one brief satellite-view section, to visit all the secondary characters omnisciently before the march. A class act.
James Sweet is the target of a massive law enforcement manhunt and his friend Carolyn seems to be his only hope for survival. They end up in a small town north of Fresno, which is identified as being on highway 99 and “the first stoplight north of the Mexico border.” They arrive in a rather desperate state of mind at Mary Louise’s house.
As the lead organizer at the UFW office, Mary Louise is appropriately concerned about the danger her friend Carolyn has brought into her life and how it will affect the union. Having a high profile African American fugitive in this small farm worker community seems likely to draw some unwanted attention.
Life, living and politics get complicated as each person explores questions about who they are, how they arrived in this place, and where they go from here. I have to say that the story really hits home for me, because Pam Whalen (my wife) and her good friend both worked for the UFW in that little town that used to have an unusual stop light on highway 99. Pam was an organizer and her friend ran the union office. While this book is fiction, it gives a very realistic view of what life was like for UFW organizers in the Central Valley at that time.
How do organizers, or anyone committed to social and economic justice, balance the demands of the work and their personal lives? What accounts for such dedication and selflessness even in the midst of chaos, crises, and life’s inevitable curve balls? The subtle dynamics that motivate people to give their all to build a movement for social change is told with skill and rare talent.
But, don’t think that it is all work and no play for Carolyn, James, and Mary Louise. They enjoy life, have fun, and experience what is possibly the best times of their lives. The backdrop is a huge march against the biggest winemaker in the region and we go with UFW organizers into the homes of farmworkers who are overcoming their fear of the bosses, learning about the power of solidarity, and the importance of the union. Tell No Lies is unambiguous in its class analysis and which side of the barricade they are on.
The political landscape is complicated by James being a high profile political refugee from the Bay Area. What if he is found with UFW organizers? Would that discredit or even destroy the union and everything they are trying to build? Should they force James out before he is discovered as momentum builds for the big march? How high of a price are people willing to pay to stand by their friends and uphold political convictions?
The joy of organizing the biggest march the valley has ever seen, the emotional highs and lows in their personal lives, and the excitement of being in times when history was being made is why you will love this book. Tell No Lies gives an accurate account of what it was like to work for the UFW, mixes in the radical politics of the early 70's, and is written by someone who was there.
Barbara Rhine worked for the UFW in the early 70's and was in the Central Valley for long enough to know that you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. She is still in contact with many of the activists who are mentioned in the book. Dolores Huerta, UFW co-founder says “Tell No Lies is a vivid account of the 1970's United Farmworkers Union. Read this novel to understand the dangers faced by organizers and all who worked with them.”
The actor Danny Glover said “If you want to know what it’s like to be a fugitive through no fault of your own - lonely, scared and then in love - read this book.”
I agree with Dolores Huerta and Danny Glover that this is a book worth reading. It is exciting to have a book that reflects and validates the work of people, right here in the Fresno area, who were working for social and economic justice in the early 1970's.
While this is not a biography or historical document about what happened, it does help the reader to understand what it was like to live in times when history was being made. You will feel the hope and confidence that these young activists had, who knew that victory was within their reach. I thank Barbara Rhine for telling that story.
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Add to that the skillful invention of characters who grip the reader
with their combination of...Read more