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Lost German Slave Girl, The – Review

by: Bailey, John

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

Copyright: 2003

Cover: Painting by George Whiting Flagg

Type: Hardcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 4/25/2005

Summary: Must read. The evolution of 18th century slavery and the mystery of a German girl.

This reviewer has only been on a roller-coaster once. Having read THE LOST GERMAN SLAVE GIRL, the experience will be counted as a second ride. If the harrowing saga of the people this book writes about does not grab you and suck you into a vortex of competing emotions, then the search for an elusive truth will. This little book has all the trappings of a film du noire, though the only crimes are slavery, a couple of lies and the requisite beautiful dame.

Author John Bailey has managed to write history that reads like a suspense novel. Just as you think you have things “figured out”, up pops a little tidbit at the beginning of the story that helps to resolve everything.

The story of the lost German slave girl is, as Bailey points out, not new. It has been rehashed in New Orleans since the 1840s. Baily relies upon those earlier works and the court records to retell the story. What he does that is apparently new is to put a nail in the elementary mystery. There was a lost German girl. What Baily does not resolve is why she became the lost German slave girl. This is a rather cryptic assessment, but it allows you to enjoy the unraveling of the story for yourself.

Baily hints at the supposition that up until the invention of the cotton gin and the freedom of the capitalistic system, slavery was a rather straightforward economic affair. Native Americans were the first slaves in America. Indentured slaves came over (not necessarily brought over by coercion) from England, Germany and anyplace else they could be found. Pure economics. But then, a region of the country, the South, developed an economy that could not function without salves. The old justifications for slavery that the slave was from a vanquished enemy and deserved a status of servitude took on a new significance. By the 1840s, the notion that a German girl or any white person could be a slave was a conceptual impossibility. Slavery was evolving under various pressures from being an odious economic institution to an odious cultural institution based upon the “science” of race. The story of the LOST GERMAN SLAVE GIRL takes place on the cusps of this ideological transition.

Slavery, economics, the plight of immigrants flooding into New Orleans are all backdrops for the story of the book. The author re-creates the atmosphere that was the old New Orleans of the early 1800s. His efforts are not a point and describe travelogue, but an airbrush stream of place, color and tone that places you in the mostly muddy, sometimes dusty streets. Known as the most dangerous city in America at the time because of the risk of cholera, yellow fever, and smallpox, the growth of New Orleans was amazing. In Baily’s detailed tracing of the route of one boatload of Germans from Europe to the city, you get a real sense of the spiritual force driving America toward the behemoth-economic and cultural–it was to become. Simply under the pressure of European immigration, slavery as an economic institution was doomed. The triage attempt to savage slavery by developing a science of race in which there were superior and inferior races was both too early and too late.

Less than twenty years after the lost German slave girl case was resolved through the courts, America would be plunged into the bloodiest war in its history. This fact alone demonstrates the extraordinary lengths to which ego can trump common sense. The story of THE LOST GERMAN SLAVE GIRL provides the same lesson on a lesser scale. This is a must read book.




A Rip In Heaven – Review

by: Cummings, Jeanine

Publisher: New American Library

Copyright: 2004

Cover: Jaime A. Gant

Type: Softcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 4/14/2005

Summary: Must read. A tragic murder leading to extraordinary lessons of life.

Of all the lines of print in A RIP IN HEAVEN, the one most memorable is toward the end. Jeanine Cummings writes: “The worst thing an oppressor can ever do to a victim is to inspire such hatred within the victim that she becomes capable of the same kind of monstrosities that oppress her.” It is a powerful message, especially within the context of events told in the book.

When reading A RIP IN HEAVEN, the reader is reminded of a number of headline grabbing crimes which have occurred over the last several years. The murder of JonBenet Ramsey in 1996 and the reported reluctance of the parents to be re-interviewed by police is the most prominent example percolating up from memory. Then, to a lesser degree perhaps, the O. J. Simpson murder of his estranged wife. In the back of your mind you tell yourself that if someone murdered a member of your family or a loved one, you would want to do everything possible to assist the authorities in finding the culprit. A RIP IN HEAVEN is, if nothing else, an anecdote to keep those urges in perspective. Of course the book is much more. In brief, the book relates events surrounding the murder of two young women in St. Louis in 1991.

Author Jeanine Cummins, known as Tink in the events of the book and cousin of the murder victims, has instilled such fullness in the lives of both the victims and the perpetrators of the crime that the phrase “lost of life” becomes more than just a description of an event, it is an assessment of a situation. Regarding the victims, you get a sense of where their lives may have taken them if they had a chance to continue; you get the same sense about the perpetrators-that in one senseless act, they exchanged existence in one prison to go to another prison. What was it that brought victims and perpetrators together? A “rip in heaven” , the quirky juxtaposition of time in another place, is as good an answer an any. But that is an answer concerning the situation-what happened. The reason things happened as they did is ultimately an unknowable. To paraphrase someone: the birth of a life is for the individual born; a death is for everyone. It is doubtful that any of us could step back far enough to ascertain the reason two young girls were brutally killed by a group of young men adrift in life. But we do not have to step back too far to see the senselessness of the murders or the tragedy of wasted lives.

A RIP IN HEAVEN spurs speculation on synchronicity and the meaning of life. The book itself never goes there. It is rooted in the mundane flow of life, interrupted by an act of violence. Other than the relevant and rich detail of the lives of the people it discusses, there is nothing speculative in the work. It is Cummins’ ability to focus on the mundane in describing what turns out to be extraordinary events that gives the book its value. The mundaneness is most prevalent in the way the police start the investigation of the murders.

Cummins spends more than a few pages discussing the polygraph, or lie detector test. It is a common tool of law enforcement, mundane almost in its application. But it is this test and the attitude of the police that drives the story of A RIP IN HEAVEN. What Cummins relates regarding the lie detector test given to the first (and only “suspect” as it turns out before the actual killers were discovered) gives credence to the opinion of some that reality is synthetic. If questioned repetitively with appropriate levels of torture (sleep deprivation, isolation, and misleading information), most people will “crack” at least to the point of doubting their grasp of reality. An innocent person might even confess to something they did not do. It has happened before. It did not happen in A RIP IN HEAVEN, but Cummins does an extraordinary job of showing us how it could happen.

In the afterword for the book, Cummins explains why she wrote A RIP IN HEAVEN, a love letter to her murdered cousins as she says. It is short, to the point, and eloquently raises the issues of the death penalty and how our society regulates “victims” to accouterments to a legal system so wrapped up in itself that it is on the verge of losing site of its purpose.

A RIP IN HEAVEN is a must read book. You may come away from it with the idea that there must be a better way for your society to view crime in general and murder in particular.



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