At the risk of telling American readers something they already know all about, Fox Butterfield’s All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence is brilliant and devastating. First published in 1995 (and reissued by Vintage in 2008 ), it begins with Butterfield’s reporting on a young prison inmate, Willie Bosket, who, in 1988, was tried for stabbing a prison guard. Bosket had committed a double murder when he was fifteen, and as Butterfield delves into his history he discovers that Bosket’s father had also been convicted for a double murder. And so he looks back at the lives of generations of the Bosket family, right back to emancipation, the Civil War, and slavery.
In Britain these days “respect” is the most debased word in the English language; each year numerous murders result from the notion that the perpetrators had been treated with insufficient respect by someone whom they promptly stabbed. The same thing has been going on in America where, I’m guessing, the verb “to diss” originated. Butterfield convincingly traces this ghettoized idea of respect to the white southern “honor” code – itself imported from the European aristocracy – which demanded satisfaction (in the form of duels) in the face of any slight. The narrative of this investigative genealogy is valuable in itself (even if there are moments when Butterfield seems in danger of being swayed by his own rhetoric) but it’s the close-up story of Willie and his father that makes the book so compelling: the constant, cliffhanging hope of the possibility of redemption matched by the attendant fear of something ever more dreadful about to be unleashed.
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