Utne Reader Book Reviews

| Mar.-Apr. 2008

  • American Chestnut Cover

  • American Chestnut Cover

Fallen Giant:
American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree
by Susan Freinkel  (University of California Press)
The American chestnut was a grand and amazingly fruitful tree, carpeting the ground so deeply with nuts each fall that it was hard to walk in a chestnut grove. It was a pillar of the Eastern forest ecosystem from Georgia to Maine and, for many Appalachia mountain dwellers, a “true and trusted member of the community” that filled local bellies and fueled local economies. But an Asian fungus devastated the species in the early 1900s, killing 4 billion trees and leaving most survivors stunted shadows of their former selves.

In American Chestnut, author Susan Freinkel tells the tree’s story through the eyes of the people who have tried to save it, some driven mainly by scientific ambition and others chiefly by a fondness for the tree: chestnut huggers, in other words. It turns out that many of her subjects have a foot in both camps, such as Philip Rutter, a farmer turned chestnut crusader who lives a “near-Amish” existence in a one-room cabin and believes chestnuts could feed the world, and Fred Hebard, a gruff plant pathologist descended from a lumber baron. When a chestnut twig poked Hebard in the eye, he tells Freinkel, he realized that “they didn’t give a shit that I was trying to help them.”

Freinkel, a science journalist, makes a fine narrator because she too resists anthropomorphizing the chestnut yet acknowledges entomologist E.O. Wilson’s concept of “biophilia,” an instinctive bond between humans and other species. By the time she reveals several promising new approaches to restoring the American chestnut, you’ll find yourself rooting for a cure.
—Keith Goetzman


Dead Man In Paradise: Unraveling a Murder from a Time of Revolution
by J.B. MacKinnon  (New Press)
Every family’s myths are amplified by the fog of time. For J.B. MacKinnon, the author of Dead Man in Paradise, an uncle’s personal legacy also fuels competing myths of the Dominican Republic’s bloody past. Father James Arthur MacKinnon was an outspoken advocate for the country’s poor in a time when whispers of communist ways could earn one a spot on a death list. During 1965’s spasm of revolution, the Canadian priest was murdered in a case left unsolved, despite official contention to the contrary. MacKinnon navigates Kafkaesque archives and travels countless back roads to reconstruct an intriguing tale that is at once travelogue, murder mystery, family biography, and political history. Ultimately, his search for truth breathes life into the past so it can be laid to rest.
—Hannah Lobel


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