Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country

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In this groundbreaking work of social journalism, a spotlight is cast on a population we find it easy, or convenient, to overlook.
"While the national economy has been growing, the economic prospects of most Americans have been dimming," William Finnegan writes.
"A new American class structure is being born—one that is harsher, in many ways, than the one it is replacing.
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Cold New World: Growing up in a Harder Country

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Overview

In this groundbreaking work of social journalism, a spotlight is cast on a population we find it easy, or convenient, to overlook.
"While the national economy has been growing, the economic prospects of most Americans have been dimming," William Finnegan writes.
"A new American class structure is being born—one that is harsher, in many ways, than the one it is replacing.
Some people are thriving in it, of course. This book is about some families who are not. More particularly, it's about their children who are teenagers
and young adults, about their lives and times, how they speak and act as they try to find their way in this cold new world.
Finnegan spent time with families in four communities across America and became an intimate observer of the lives revealed in these beautifully
rendered portraits: A fifteen-year-old drug dealer in blighted New Haven, Connecticut. A sleepy Texas town transformed when crack arrives.
Mexican American teenagers in Washington State, unable to relate to their immigrant parents and trying to find an identity in gangs. Jobless young white
supremacists in a downwardly mobile L.A. suburb.
This is a book about race, class, and social change that never loses sight of its subjects' humanity. The kids in these pages are complex,
multifaceted individuals, alternately sympathetic and frustrating, as richly drawn and compelling as characters in a novel. At the same time,
Finnegan's journalism goes beyond reportage as he lays bare the economic trends and political decisions that have created this harsher America—
a country where inequality and cultural alienation grow at a dangerous pace. Important,powerful, and compassionate, Cold New World gives us an
unforgettable look into a present that presages our future.
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Editorial Reviews

Jack Hitt
Finnegan's ability to plumb his characters' complexities is due to his documentary style. He settles upon a character and a place, and then he just keeps coming back for more and more visits, sometimes for years....Finegan's hanging-around technique yields riches among the kind of people that most reporters would strenuously avoid....[His stories] are about powerless people left battered and grounded by an economy that may be richly rewarding the educated, but is cruelly punishing many others.
-- New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Finnegan, a staff writer for the New Yorker, here functions as both a messenger and as a journalist. His message is that America is raising a new generation of young people shaped by an "oppressive sense of reduced possibilities." If that phrase smacks of sociological jargon, the book itself does not because of Finnegan's unobtrusive reportorial style that combines intuition with insight and fieldwork. While in the past 25 years poverty among the elderly has dropped by more than 50%, it has increased by 37% among children, notes the author. To find out what that means in human terms, he met with young people in four impoverished or lower-middle-class communities: the black slums of New Haven, Conn.; rural San Augustine County in Texas; the Yakima Valley in Washington, where the economy relies on underpaid Mexican labor; and Antelope Valley in California, a distant suburb of Los Angeles caught up in a struggle between warring bands of teenage skinheads. From each community, Finnegan draws vivid portraits of individuals caught between a sense of despair that they can never achieve the good life and an almost utopian dream that they can somehow break through to the middle class. The struggle between gangs is probably the most arresting section of the book, but the level of grim insight throughout will disturb the optimism of a healthy economy supposedly reflected in Wall Street's rising numbers. This book is a vibrant eye-opener.
Library Journal
On the evidence of this very American investigation, Finnegan has earned the deep respect accorded him for his earlier, risky reporting on African affairs. A New Yorker staff writer, he is best known for Crossing the Line (LJ 9/15/87), a work about apartheid in South Africa.

For this new project, Finnegan dropped himself into the lives-particularly, the teenaged lives-of four communities missing out on the much-hyped market prosperity of the early Clinton years. Finnegan makes himself a benign feature in the blistered landscapes he draws, befriending the lead characters without corrupting the outcome of the stories in university-distant New Haven, CT; rural-remote San Augustine in East Texas; rural-suburban Sunnyside, in Washington State's wine country; and suburban-urban Antelope Valley, comprising the outer reaches of Los Angeles County. Finnegan produces page-turning social journalism, writing beautifully about the ugly lives of alienated teenagers and desperate parents sinking fast. Drugs, sex, and violence are the running themes. Only rarely does Finnegan insert personal or political commenatry into his extended vignettes, until the surprisingly charged epilog.
Highly recommended for all academic and public libraries and especially high school collections.
--Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr College Library, PA

Kirkus Reviews
A beautifully written, poignant journey through America's growing poverty class and the adolescents who wander without direction through this dreary landscape. Finnegan's fine narrative of life in these troubled times is a good counterweight to the blather many politicians will offer this election season about the necessity of caring for our children.

A writer for the New Yorker, where portions of this book have appeared, Finnegan (Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid, 1986, etc.) traveled across America, landing in four geographically distinct and yet, as he aptly shows, spiritually similar spots. Among the telling portraits of individuals is Terry Jackson, a 15-year-old New Haven, Conn., drug dealer who tries to use his ill-gotten profits to buy himself a certain degree of security and self-esteem. San Augustine County, Tex., residents are forever changed by a large-scale but ultimately questionable drug raid. In Yakima Valley, Wash., Mexican-American adolescents struggle to find themselves in a culture vastly different from that of their working-class parents. And, finally, the author offers a chilling portrait of anomie and violence among teenage skinheads in the downwardly mobile Antelope Valley in northern Los Angeles County.

The reasons for these teens' dislocation are myriad, and include the abdication of parental roles, unequal educational opportunities, and racism. But even more, Finnegan blames deindustrialization and the need for mothers to leave home and work. Finnegan excoriates welfare "reform," which is "forcing additional millions of poor mothers into the paid work force," and leaving their children adrift. A bleak conclusion indeed. But what could have been a desolate story instead is given power and depth by Finnegan's smooth prose and his insightful asides as he shares these young people's lives.

A perspicacious, compellingly written tale of young people for whom the future holds little, if any, promise.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679448709
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/12/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 421
  • Product dimensions: 6.47 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.49 (d)

Meet the Author

William Finnegan has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1987. He is the author of A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique; Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters; and Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid, which was named one of the ten best nonfiction books of 1986 by The New York Times Book Review. He was a National Magazine Award finalist in both 1990 and 1995. He lives in New York City with his wife.
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Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION xiii
NEW HAVEN 1
DEEP EAST TEXAS 93
THE YAKIMA VALLEY 209
THE ANTELOPE VALLEY 269
EPILOGUE 341
NOTES 353
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 397
INDEX 401
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Reading Group Guide

About the Book:

This discussion guide will assist readers in exploring Cold New World. Hopefully, it will help create a bond not only between the book and the reader, but also between the members of the group. In your support of this book, please feel free to copy and distribute this guide to best facilitate the program. Thank you.Discussion Questions:

Question: Cold New World is about kids, families, and communities "caught in social and economic downdrafts." The book cites evidence that the great American middle class has been shrinking since the 1970s, and offers various examples of a generation-long decline in economic opportunity for nonaffluent young people. (See, for instance, the lawyer Nancy Kelso's speech on p. 323.) Meanwhile, many of our politicians and pundits extol the current health of the American economy. So, is Finnegan simply pointing out the empty fraction of a mostly full glass? What factors do you think account for these sharply different descriptions of the state of the American Dream?

Question: The Sunday Times of London called Cold New World "a landmark account of teenage alienation in America." After reading the book, do you feel any closer to understanding the more bizarre and frightening attitudes and behavior sometimes manifested by young Americans?

Question: What does Finnegan mean when, after taking readers on his national tour of sometimes-alarming youth subcultures, he writes, "They connect private and public life" (p. 349)?

Question: Terry Jackson's decision to become a drug dealer is first described in terms of a powerful economic opportunity that suddenly presents itself to a child of grinding poverty (p. 9-16). Terry himself describes the excitement of the dealer's life, including the girls who come with it. The author, meanwhile, analyzes the consumerist values that dominate the young dealer's world (p. 58-59). Then Virginia Henry, an older anti-drug activist, offers her very different view of these matters (p. 59-60). Whose description of the illegal drug trade—its morality, its allure—seems most persuasive?

Question: The "Deep East Texas" section of Cold New World is, in part, about a disappearing way of life, represented here by Nathan Tindall. The sheriff's election becomes a kind of referendum on this way of life. Who did you find yourself rooting for as San Augustine County went to the polls? Why?

Question: Laverne Clark has a sharp, specific sense of local history and black dispossession in the rural South (p. 112). Her daughter Lanee Mitchell has a radically different view of the past and its significance (p. 125-131). What factors account for this philosophical difference? Finnegan clashes with both women at points. Whose arguments did you find stronger when the topic was unwed motherhood (p. 132-136) or Anita Hill (p. 184)? And where did your sympathies lie when Finnegan refused to corroborate Lanee's story about beating her son (p. 194)?

Question: Why do you think the commanders of Operation White Tornado decided to pounce when they did (p. 156-157)?

Question: In the Yakima Valley, Rafael and Rosa Guerrero pursue the immigrants' dream of una vida mejor with great determination. Why does Juan not share his parents' faith in the farmworkers' union as a vehicle for their hopes? And what does it mean when Finnegan writes, "Juan's anomie was not Third World but thoroughly American" (p. 246)?

Question: Is Don Vlieger's lecture on youth gangs (p. 220-224) persuasive? Does Juan's experience with gangs—or Mary Ann Ramirez's experience (p. 240-243; p. 259-261)—tend to confirm or contradict Vlieger's analysis?

Question: Juan and Mary Ann break up after he feels he has to make a choice between her and his (male) friends. When they get back together in Texas, Juan seems to appreciate his own good fortune. But then their story ends on an ominous note. What do you think happened next? And what model of the family and of communal responsibility is Juan substituting for his parents' traditional campesino sense of village solidarity?

Question: The Los Angeles suburbs of the Antelope Valley have suffered a long string of hate crimes. Finnegan observes (p. 273) that the downward social and economic mobility of many of the valley's white residents, combined with upward mobility among the area's blacks and Latinos, has provided the spark, the charged atmosphere, for many of these crimes—some white youths, in particular, cannot abide this reversal of standard race-caste roles. Do you find this a persuasive explanation of the strange popularity of white supremacism among kids in the Antelope Valley? What other forces might lead young people to join a gang such as the Nazi Low Riders?

Question: Mindy Turner has been through an extraordinary number of "phases" by the time she turns fourteen—hippie, hesher, would-be Jew, Mormon convert, neo-Nazi. What do you think drives her? And why does she continue to be attracted—even after many bad experiences—to racist, violent men?

Question: The damage that crystal methamphetamine does to both individuals and communities becomes obvious in "The Unwanted" section of Cold New World. Is the drug itself the problem? Or do you see it as primarily a symptom of social malaise? Is criminalization the best policy response? Or would treating crystal meth (and other dangerous drugs) as a public-health problem ultimately yield better results?

Question: Do you agree with the district attorney's decision not to prosecute Darius Houston for killing Jeff Malone (p. 334)?

Question: Are you persuaded by Finnegan's arguments against the existence of a "culture of poverty" (p. xxi, 135, 361, 378-379)? Does Dr. James Comer's description (pp. 44-45) of the early realization among poor children that they are not being prepared to compete in the mainstream economy ring true? What social policies might help stem the loss of so many young Americans to drugs, prison, and poverty?

Question: Finnegan clearly got quite close to many of the people he writes about in Cold New World. Do you think that, on the whole, this improved his understanding or undermined his objectivity?

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