A populist federal judge who fought for the women victimized by the Dalkon Shield, a specialist in echocardiography (a fetal detective, so to speak), the killers of six helpless citizens and a highly intelligent young farmer who survived the cycle of boom and bust in the 1980s--these hardly qualify as the subtitle's ``ordinary people,'' but their stories certainly make fascinating reading in this collection of pieces that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Given carte blanche to find good stories, roving reporter Siegel ( A Death in White Bear Lake ) covers subjects including murder, suicide, accusations of child molestation, gene alteration in children and the agonizing need to weigh the value of human lives against the cost of saving them. The last selection, showing human beings powerless against the forces of nature, provides a rousing climax. (Feb.)
Siegel's talent for thoughtful and responsible reportage, first evidenced in A Death in White Bear Lake (1990), finds a perfect showcase in this collection of pieces (most first published in The Los Angeles Times) on how ordinary Americans grapple with ethical ambiguity in courtrooms, scientific laboratories, doctors' offices, and everyday life. In Minneapolis, US District Judge Miles Lord chooses to exceed the limits of his judicial mandate to personally censor the actions of the unaccused corporate executives who marketed the Dalkon Shield. In California, two sisters decide, despite trepidations, to help their terminally ill father commit suicide. Also in California, a doctor anguishes over how much information to give an expectant mother about her as-yet-unborn child. Any one of the agonizing conflicts described in Siegel's perceptive and wide- ranging reports would provide enough material for a short story, or even a novel. Put together, his tales of a lawyer's efforts to arrange a pardon for a man on death row, of an Indiana town's semicovert efforts to play down a local teenager's murder of an Amish baby living nearby, of a middle-class community's confusion and anger when a very young child accuses a playmate's dad of sexual abuse, and so on overwhelm with a sense of hundreds of ordinary Americans agonizing over how to do what's right, as well as with a realization of the often utter impossibility of doing so. Early on in the book, dramatic courtroom dramas draw the most interest, but even Siegel's more ponderous explorations of the difficulties of modern-day prenatal counseling, and of the temptation for scientists to value career advancement over good research, provefascinating in their complexity. The best possible combination of journalism and storytelling, matching weighty themes with real-life, three-dimensional Americans to wrestle with them. Not what you read in the headlines—this is captivating news.