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Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

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Overview

Devil in the Grove is the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Arguably the most important American lawyer of the twentieth century, Thurgood Marshall was on the verge of bringing the landmark suit Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court when he became embroiled in a case that threatened to change the course of the civil rights movement and cost him his life.

In 1949, Florida's orange industry was ...

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Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

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Overview

Devil in the Grove is the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Arguably the most important American lawyer of the twentieth century, Thurgood Marshall was on the verge of bringing the landmark suit Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court when he became embroiled in a case that threatened to change the course of the civil rights movement and cost him his life.

In 1949, Florida's orange industry was booming, and citrus barons got rich on the backs of cheap Jim Crow labor with the help of Sheriff Willis V. McCall, who ruled Lake County with murderous resolve. When a white seventeen-year-old girl cried rape, McCall pursued four young blacks who dared envision a future for themselves beyond the groves. The Ku Klux Klan joined the hunt, hell-bent on lynching the men who came to be known as "the Groveland Boys."

Associates thought it was suicidal for Marshall to wade into the "Florida Terror," but the young lawyer would not shrink from the fight despite continuous death threats against him.

Drawing on a wealth of never-before-published material, including the FBI's unredacted Groveland case files, as well as unprecedented access to the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund files, Gilbert King shines new light on this remarkable civil rights crusader.

Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction

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Editorial Reviews

Wil Haygood
“The tragic Groveland saga -- with its Faulknerian echoes of racial injustice spinning around an accusation of rape -- comes astonishingly alive in Gilbert King’s narrative. It is both heartbreaking and unforgettable.”
Kevin Boyle
“In the terrifying story of the Groveland boys Gilbert King recreates an extraordinary moment in America’s long, hard struggle for racial justice. Devil in the Grove is a harrowing, haunting, utterly mesmerizing book.”
Michael G. Long
“Gilbert King’s gut-wrenching, and captivating, narrative is civil rights literature at its best--meticulously researched, brilliantly written, and singularly focused on equal justice for all.”
Phyllis Vine
“This is a haunting and compelling story, one of many in the campaign for racial justice. . . . This book is important because it is disturbing. And in that regard we cannot walk away from the story it tells.”
Ira Katznelson
“Its rich case history captures the beginning of the end of the most extreme forms of racism. . . . Very few books combine this depth of research and narrative power about a subject of such pivotal significance.”
Jack Greenberg
“Gilbert King has done a remarkable job of weaving together history, sociology, law and detective work of his own, to reveal facts that even I, one of the defense counsel in the case, had not been aware of until now.”
The Chicago Tribune
“A powerful and well-told drama of Southern injustice.”
Christian Science Monitor
Devil in the Grove is a compelling look at the case that forged Thurgood Marshall’s perception of himself as a crusader for civil rights. . . . King’s style [is] at once suspenseful and historically meticulous”
Salon
“Recreates an important yet overlooked moment in American history with a chilling, atmospheric narrative that reads more like a Southern Gothic novel than a work of history.”
Boston Globe
“A taut, intensely readable narrative.”
Booklist
“A compelling chronicle.”
Dallas Morning News
“Gripping. . . . Lively and multidimensional.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“[An] excellent book on a little known and horrifying incident in which four young black men were rounded up and accused of raping a white woman, readers cannot help but be awed by the bravery of those who took a stand in the late 1940s and early 1950s.”
Junot Diaz
“Superb.”
Thomas Friedman
“This story about four young black men who were accused of the rape of a white woman in Lake County, Fla., in 1949 — and what the local sheriff and his cronies, who were itching for a lynching, got away with — is a must-read, cannot-put-down history.”
Publishers Weekly
In July 1949, four black men in Florida (the “Groveland Four”) were accused of raping a white woman. By the time Marshall joined the case in August, one of the defendants—who had fled into the swamps—had been “lawfully killed.” After a trial of the remaining three, two were sentenced to death, and one to life imprisonment. On Marshall’s appeal, the Supreme Court ordered a new trial for the two on death row, though both men were shot while being transported between prisons before the second trial began, and only one survived. Using unredacted Groveland FBI case files and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund files, journalist King (The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South) revisits an oft-overlooked case, with its accuser, whose testimony was patently false; defendants, who suffered terribly as a consequence; local police officials and lawyers who persecuted and prosecuted them; and their lawyers, who showed remarkable courage and perseverance in seeking justice. The story’s drama and pathos make it a page-turner, but King’s attention to detail, fresh material, and evenhanded treatment of the villains make it a worthy contribution to the history of the period, while offering valuable insight into Marshall’s work and life. Agent: Farley Chase, the Waxman Literary Agency. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Seasoned journalist King (The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South) has written an arresting account of Thurgood Marshall's role as a prominent civil rights attorney in challenging racist "justice" in the South. King vividly renders the horrors perpetrated by a racist legal system and its odious representatives—principally, Lake County, FL, Sheriff Willis McCall, who was responsible for the 1949 arrest and unjust prosecution of four young black men, designated "the Groveland Boys." In this case, Marshall and the NAACP pursued every legal remedy to save the lives of these young men falsely accused of rape by a white woman, whose preposterous story went unquestioned by authorities. At great personal risk, Marshall tenaciously challenged the hegemony of McCall, eventually bringing to an end the racist reign of terror in Lake County and drawing it and its underlying mentality to national attention. VERDICT A powerful snapshot of history and the man who made it, certain to appeal to readers of Hampton Sides's Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History.—Lynne F. Maxwell, Villanova Sch. of Law Lib., PA
Kirkus Reviews
A thoroughgoing study of one of the most important civil-rights cases argued by Thurgood Marshall in dismantling Jim Crow strictures. "Mr. Civil Rights" was mid-career in 1949 as special council to the Legal Defense Fund (of the NAACP) when the case of four young black men facing the death penalty for the rape of a white woman in Groveland, Fla., riveted his attention. Yet in order for the LDF to accept the case, it had to fulfill three requirements, as delineated by Marshall and explained in Smithsonian contributor King's (The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South, 2008) excellent account: There was injustice because of race or color; the man was innocent; and there was a real possibility of establishing precedent in the courts. Essentially, 17-year-old Norma Lee Padgett, married but separated from her husband, claimed that four black men had abducted and raped her after a dance she attended with her husband. In fact, three of the suspects—Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee and Sam Shepherd—were arbitrarily picked up by Sheriff Willis McCall, a ringleader in the local Ku Klux Klan and friend of the powerful citrus growers of central Florida, summarily tortured in the basement of the jailhouse, from which "confessions" were then wrought, and paraded for the press. The final suspect, Ernest Thomas, had been hunted down in a cypress swamp and shot dead. Through the NAACP's Florida network, Marshall became involved in the case, appealing the initial guilty verdict for Shepherd and Irvin all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the convictions in Shepherd v. Florida in 1951. Yet McCall held the last word: He and his deputy not only drove the two suspects outside of town and shot them (Shepherd died instantly), but pursued Irvin even after the Florida governor pardoned him in 1955. King traces the pernicious tentacles of bigotry and expertly depicts the role of the press, the cast of characters and the entire contextual story of civil-rights law and the NAACP. Deeply researched and superbly composed.
The Barnes & Noble Review

In July 1949, a young white couple, Norma and Willie Padgett, told police that seventeen-year-old Norma had been raped by four black men near Groveland, Florida, setting in motion one of the most dramatic civil rights cases of the twentieth century. Gilbert King's Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America recreates an important yet overlooked moment in American history with a chilling, atmospheric narrative that reads more like a Southern Gothic novel than a work of history.

King, author of The Execution of Willie Francis, observes that Florida, despite its "boundless capacity for racial inhumanity," was considered "south of the South"; it had somehow managed to escape the scrutiny of, say, Mississippi or Alabama (site of the similar and better- known Scottsboro Boys case of 1931) despite recording more lynchings than any other state. Within hours of the Padgetts' claim, three suspects — World War II veterans Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin and teenager Charles Greenlee — were being held for the crime. Hundreds of men stormed the jail, clamoring for a lynching. When the mob was turned away, crowds descended upon black Groveland, shooting into houses and burning down the home of Shepherd's father, who had managed to buy land to farm independently rather than working in the citrus groves, as blacks in rural Lake County were expected to do. A fourth suspect, Ernest Thomas, escaped into the swamps, only to be later caught and killed by a large mob.

"The American justice system was wholly stacked against powerless blacks," King writes, and the bulk of the narrative concerns the appalling twists and turns of the legal case against the defendants, known as the Groveland Boys. Under the brutal interrogation of Lake County sheriff Willis McCall, all three were beaten and whipped until they confessed to the crime. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, having monitored the disturbing news reports about the case from the beginning, decided to become directly involved. The defense was handled first by Franklin Williams and eventually by future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, who was by then already a celebrity known as "Mr. Civil Rights." With the white supremacist Sheriff McCall and the Ku Klux Klan holding a tight grip on the county, Williams, Marshall, and the other black attorneys and reporters who traveled to and from central Florida to work on the case risked their lives to do so.

Williams later described the first trial in unreal terms, as "a story that I was living through," replete with a stiflingly hot courtroom, a judge who whittled cedar sticks throughout the proceedings, and hostile white spectators crowding the benches. To this day it is not at all clear that a rape took place, but the NAACP lawyers had to find ways to defend the Groveland Boys without ever hinting that a white woman, even one known around town as "a bad egg," might be lying. Despite prosecutorial misconduct and extremely weak evidence, the three defendants were quickly found guilty, with Shepherd and Irvin sentenced to death.

The NAACP appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1951 overturned the convictions and ordered a retrial, calling Florida's discriminatory handling of the case "one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice." But the case took a nightmarish turn when Sheriff McCall, transporting Shepherd and Irvin from death row to their retrial in Lake County, shot the two men multiple times on a deserted back road, claiming they had tried to escape. Shepherd died instantly, leaving only the wounded Irvin to be represented by Marshall at his retrial. Irvin was promptly convicted and sentenced to death a second time, but after some dramatic maneuvering by Marshall, which included his barging in on a card game between Chief Justice Fred Vinson and President Harry Truman and convincing Vinson to sign a stay of execution, his sentence was eventually commuted by Florida's governor.

There is much that shocks in King's wrenching account, from the small indignities, like the prosecutor mistaking the black lawyers for the defendants, up to the monstrous crimes. These include not just the highly suspicious killing of Shepherd by McCall (who managed to continue what King calls his "reign of terror" as sheriff until 1972, despite forty-nine separate investigations of misconduct charges) but the subsequent murder of Harry Moore, killed along with his wife when their house was bombed. Moore, the first civil rights leader to be assassinated in the United States, was the NAACP's executive secretary in Florida and a tireless advocate on behalf of the Groveland defendants. Nobody was ever charged in the Moores' deaths.

Throughout the book, the author periodically widens his focus to explore the case's broader context, noting that the alleged rape gave McCall and his deputies "an excuse to do some heavy housekeeping with regard to black troublemakers and potential instigators." Their list would have certainly included returning veterans like Shepherd and Irvin and independent farmers like Shepherd's father — all viewed as "uppity" by whites who tolerated blacks in Groveland only so long as they understood their place, providing cheap labor for the white-owned citrus groves.

King also provides insight into Marshall's long-range legal strategy of chipping away at injustice. He fully expected to lose jury trials in the South, but you fought, he explained, "so that you lived to fight another day," by establishing grounds for appeal. Just before arguing the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall emerges as a heroic figure, facing great risk with courage and gallows humor. King writes that "there is not a Supreme Court justice who served with Marshall or a lawyer who clerked for him that did not hear his renditions, always colorfully told, of the Groveland story." While the case, until now, has been mostly forgotten, Marshall, for good reason, never forgot it.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, andSpin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061792267
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/19/2013
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 434
  • Sales rank: 49,215
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Gilbert King has written about U.S. Supreme Court history for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and is a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine's history blog, Past Imperfect. He is the author of The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South. He lives in New York City with his wife and two daughters.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 Mink Slide 7

2 Sugar Hill 21

3 Get to Pushin' 33

4 Nigger in a Pit 40

5 Trouble Fixin' to Start 58

6 A Little Bolita 72

7 Wipe this Place Clean 84

8 A Christmas Card 100

9 Don't Shoot White Man 113

10 Quite a Hose Wielder 124

11 Bad Egg 150

12 Atom Smasher 178

13 In any Fight Some Fall 193

14 THis is a Rape Case 210

15 You Have Pissed in my Whiskey 219

16 It's Funny Thing 240

17 No Man Alive or to be Born 258

18 All Over The Place, Like Rats 273

19 Private Parts 283

20 A Genius Here Before US 303

21 The Colored Way 321

22 A Place In The Sun 331

Epilogue 353

Acknowledgements 363

A Note On Sources 366

Notes 368

Selected Bibliography 413

Index 417

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 40 )
Rating Distribution

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(27)

4 Star

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 40 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 24, 2012

    I thought this book was going to too dark and violent for my tas

    I thought this book was going to too dark and violent for my tastes, but I was wrong. This book is masterful in the way the author changes pace, alternating between history and heartstopping drama. At turns, King describes with great clarity the citrus economy, or the corruption in Florida politics that set the state for a story like Groveland. Other times, he takes great care to deliver the shocking plot twists, usually the result of Sheriff Willis McCall's racism. But the book presents a balanced look at the characters who are caught in "the Dawn of a New America" where the times are changing in Florida. That's what's so amazing about this story. Thurgood Marshall was right at the center of these changes not just in Florida, but across the country. And it all plays out in the shadowy land the author calls, south of the South.

    Devil in the Grove is one of the best books I've read in a long, long time. Part of why I liked it so much is it brings a bit of glory and recognition to the lawyers in this story from the NAACP, black and white, who put their lives on the line. Yes, their lives were literally on the line. One was even killed by the KKK at the start of the rape trial! I have to say that despite the heavy subject, I laughed several times while reading this book. Thurgood Marshall had a wonderful sense of humor on display and the trial is such a farce, with the prosecutor making a mockery of every defense witness, that it was hard not to bust out laughing, thinking that some of these things really happened in an American courtroom in the 20th century. Highly recommended.

    18 out of 18 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2012

    A must read

    Timely, thoroughly researched, well written and a story that resonates in our time.

    One of the best pieces of contemporary history to come along in a very long time.

    If this is the only book you read this summer, your time will be very well spent.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 30, 2012

    Highly Recommend

    I am still reading this book but I am enjoying very much.

    I am an Historian by training and the book exposes what the civil rights situation, at the end of WWII, was like in the South.

    It is a fast paced and very well written book.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 19, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    excellent

    This is a fascinating book about a terrible travesty of justice. It seems to be well researched.
    It didn't know the outcome, and it was difficult to put the book down.
    I knew nothing about Thurgood Marshall except that he was a Supreme Court justice, and it was very interesting to learn about his earlier law career.
    Maybe I shouldn't be, but I was shocked that this occurred during my lifetime (the 1940's and 50's).

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    This book is very chilling and highly scary i would not recommen

    This book is very chilling and highly scary i would not recommended this book to anyone but horror book readers.

    2 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2013

    Highly recommended.

    An intriguing true story; well investigated, well written. This book definitely deserved the Pulitzer prize it got.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2013

    I live in Central Florida, but am a transplant from Wisconsin; t

    I live in Central Florida, but am a transplant from Wisconsin; this book was fantastic. I really believe that the struggle for Civil Rights as it is taught, tends to trivialize or neglect the difficulties that many hero's like Thurgood Marshall and many, many others engaged in. I Highly recommend this book to fellow Civics and US History teachers. The brutality of segregation against blacks and the corrosive effect it had on white society is almost a theological, as well as a Historical dilemma that this book explores.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2012

    Some history we should all know about

    Sometimes it gets into a lot of detail but the detail is necessary for the story. I can't believe we used to (and some still do) have beliefs like this. A real eye opener and the true meaning of courage.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2012

    Enlightening; great read

    The story moves quickly with a nice combination of history, legal and personal points of view. It was clear and provided a new view on the Civil Rights movement.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2012

    Fabulous!

    This book is brilliantly written; it reads like a novel, but it actually happened. It's a thorough examination of the early professional years of Thurgood Marshall's career. It was revealing to me how pervasive and virulent the racism in Florida was around 1950, and how small-town justice was meted out by racist, sociopathic local lawmen by means of pistols and shotguns. I sometimes think that racism is still prevalent in the entire United States, but this book shows how egregiously present it was in Florida after WWII. It still exists, but it's just subtler and less murderous.
    I would also recommend this author's previous book, The Execution of Willie (Last name?), which has some of the same tension and excellent narrative.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2012

    Excellent!

    This is a story everyone needs to read! My only complaint is that the dates and order of events (mostly ancillary events rather than the main story line) were confusing, especially for the first half of the book. It is a trite expression that if we don't know our history we are bound to repeat it. But as I read this book I couldn't help but think how applicable that is to the Groveland boys-- all Americans need to know this story so that this kind of injustice will never be tolerated again.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 30, 2012

    Gilbert King is to be commended for this accomplishment. His wri

    Gilbert King is to be commended for this accomplishment. His writing style is masterful and his extensive research is exhaustive and thorough. One can only wonder why this case has not been dissected in the past. I continually had to remind myself that this was not a true crime novel but a non-fiction book depicting the worst of the Jim Crow era. Mr. King's remarkable style leaves the reader somewhat breathless in its wake and he is to be commended for offering us a work that will, no doubt, be a classic study of Thurgood Marshall's diligent work, through the courts, to attain equal rights for all Americans.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 22, 2013

    Highly recommended. Difficult to put down!

    This book reveals why Thurgood Marshall will be remember as one of the greatest Supreme Court Justices in our history. A warrior for the equal protection of every citizen of this great country if ours. It reveals some of the horrors of our past and hopefully encourages us to not allow these evils to repeat in our future.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 22, 2013

    Recommended

    Very informative look at the pre-civil rights South and the struggles of some courageous people.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2013

    Excellent Book

    Awarded a well deserved Pulitzer King deftly describes the lawlessness inflicted on the Black Population in post World War 11 Cental Florida by law enforcement itself. The great debt the Civil Rights Movement owes Thurgood Marshall is chronicled in rich detail. Marshall is a giant figure in Twentieth Century America who is not given his due.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2013

    Amazing

    This is a story that will amaze and in some way bring out the best in all

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 24, 2012

    Excellent history.

    This book is gripping, informative, shocking and depressing all at the same time. I am so ashamed of my southern "white" brothers for their hatred and cruelty. The idea that skin color is a valid assessment of a person's humaness is as stupid as the bias that exists either for or against a person because of his/her religion or politics or sexual preferences. I am thrilled that Thurgood Marshall was able to use the judicial system to "educate" and make some progress toward respecting all people. There is still today too much of the "us vs them" divisions in our society. This book helps to bring some prospective to our journey to brotherhood.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2012

    compelling history

    The author takes the reader back to Lake County, Florida 55 to 60 years ago. The stories about Thurgood Marshall in the era before the Supreme Court and even before Brown v. Board of Education are fascinating. A slice of this country's history that many do not fully appreciate. I am sure other authors have covered this history, and I am no authority in the area, but I will say, if this author is making anything up or stretching the truth about the corruption of law enforcement in central Florida to tell a better, more shocking tale, he sure has an effective way of writing with the appearance of credibility.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 26, 2012

    An excellent book about a very troubling part of our shared hist

    An excellent book about a very troubling part of our shared history. Great history and great writing as well. Reminds one of how so much in human history is complex yet connected. Highly recommend.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2014

    Excellent

    A really good book and an interesting read.

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