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In this compelling narrative, Keneally recounts the histories of these events while vividly evoking the terrible cost of famine at the level of the individual who starves and the nation that withers.
Booker Prize–winning author Keneally (Searching for Schindler:A Memoir, 2008, etc.) examines causes of deadly famines over the past 150 years, terrible times of starvation when the victims became "members of the nation of the famished, who have more in common with each other than with the cultures starvation steals from them."
The author focuses on three examples—the great hunger that began in Ireland in 1845, the deadly famine in Bengal, India, during World War II and the decimation of Ethiopians in the 1970s and '80s—to argue that while famines may be triggered by natural disasters, in every case their cause is mainly political. They are neither acts of God nor the result of the improvident behavior of the hungry, but are the result of deliberate policies by those in power—made worse by the denial of the democratic right of the victims to voice their protest. Keneally takes particular aim at Malthusian explanations that couple famine with overpopulation. He documents that postponement of marriage limited the size of Irish families, and their heavy reliance on a potato diet had the positive effect of protecting them from vitamin-deficiency diseases such as pellagra and scurvy. Although the failure of the potato crop in Ireland was a precondition for the famine, writes the author, grain and livestock grown in Ireland could have fed people adequately had the British government permitted its domestic distribution instead of insisting that its export to England be continued. A similar situation existed in Bengal when the British diverted rice to the use of the army deployed against the Japanese. In Ethiopia, it was forced collectivization by Marxist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam that fatally disrupted agricultural production. Keneally concludes that the major cause of famine is human agency.
The author provides ample documentation instead of just preaching, but his important message is clear—unless we deal with the real causes of famine, it "has not had its last ride."
Maps of the regions ix
Introduction: the Three Famines 1
1 Democracy and Starvation 7
2 Short Commons 17
3 Nature s Triggers 23
4 God's Hand 31
5 Coping 35
6 Villains: Ireland 61
7 Villains and Heroes: Bengal 75
8 Villains: Ethiopia 101
9 Whistleblowers 127
10 Famine Diseases 143
11 Evictions, Movements and Emigration in Bengal and Ireland 157
12 Evictions and Movements, Mengistu-style 183
13 Resistance 203
14 Relief: Ireland 223
15 Relief: Bengal 247
16 Relief: Ethiopia 263
17 Other Catastrophes 285
Posted December 27, 2011
Anglophiles will not like this book. It highlights a direct connection between the British Empire and these three famines. It is true that the British were not directly involved in the horrors of the Mengistu era famines in Kenya, but it was the British who introduced maize as a staple crop there, blunting the ability of the Kenyan's traditional agriculture to mitigate the worst effects. The famines in Ireland and Bengal occurred under colonial governments established by the British. It was a combination of a Protestant/free market philosophy that equated charity with laziness and their perception of colonial peoples as uncivilized and lazy ( "Trevelyan believed the Irish too indolent to farm like civilized people..." p.67)that allowed British officials to discount the realities the subject peoples faced. In Bengal there was a military threat from the Japanese, but government inaction went far beyond the end of the military crisis. It is a good book to begin an exploration of the political aspects of famine with. From here you could more easily grasp something like "The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849" by Cecil Woodham-Smith.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 18, 2011
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