Bankruptcy and fraud run through the ostensibly wholesome business culture of small-town America in this intimate study of a Depression-era building-and-loan failure. Echols (Hot Stuff), professor of history at the University of Southern California, recounts the 1932 bankruptcy of the City Savings Building and Loan Association of Colorado Springs, Colo., a thrift run by her grandfather Walter Davis. The failure wiped out thousands of depositors and sparked scandal when Davis fled and some of his victims plotted to kidnap his daughter (Echols’s mother, Dorothy) to compel his return; he hanged himself in jail after his capture. Drawing on family archives, Echols combines lucid exposition of the rickety economics of the building-and-loan industry with a rich social history of its decline from cooperative nonprofit institutions that financed working-class home buyers to laxly regulated, for-profit venues for predatory lending and Ponzi schemes. She styles Davis as a darker—in her telling, truer—version of building-and-loan icon George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life: not a populist hero, but a greedy social climber seeking wealth and status through reckless—then fraudulent—gambles with other people’s money, enabled by the anticollectivist ethos of his conservative community. Echols’s absorbing portrait makes Main Street the rival of Wall Street for callous corruption. Photos. (Oct.)
Praise for Shortfall
"Using family documents and her mother’s memories, Echols depicts a man whose financial malfeasance foreshadowed the savings-and-loan debacle of the eighties and the stock-market crash of 2008."
The New Yorker
"[An] intimate study of a Depression-era building-and-loan failure. Echols’s absorbing portrait makes Main Street the rival of Wall Street for callous corruption."
Publishers Weekly (Starred)
"[Shortfall is] a thoughtful, thoroughly researched look at financial crises, past and present."
"A lively and informative treatment in which one man's rise and fall opens a window onto a long-overlooked historical landscape in all its finely drawn detail."
Praise for Hot Stuff
"In this expertly rendered, wide-ranging history of one of pop’s most exciting social and musical movements, Alice Echols thoroughly recovers the moment in which disco was born and flowered."
Ann Powers, NPR
"Echols’s love of music, her acumen about popular culture, and her gifts as a leading cultural historian come together in this remarkable book. . . . Fascinating, carried along by prose that is as sleek and slinky as its subject."
Christine Stansell, University of Chicago
"Engrossing . . . scholarly but fun."
The New York Times
"Echols aims for—and thoroughly achieves—a range of higher cultural insights. . . . Revelatory."
Praise for Scars of Sweet Paradise
"Written with cinematic flair, Scars of Sweet Paradise takes us on a poetic wild ride where we confront Joplin’s demons, her dreams, and her pains. In the process we discover a passageway into the social and cultural history of an entire generation."
Robin D.G. Kelley, UCLA
"Stunningly original and evocative. . . . No previous writer has identified Joplin’s achievements as successfully as Echols does in this book."
George Lipsitz, University of California, Santa Barbara
Praise for Shaky Ground
"Alice Echols is that rarest of breeds: a great historian and a great writer. She captures, as no one else has, the dizzyingly absurd complexity of American culture and cultural politics in our times."
David Nasaw, author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst
"Alice Echols makes brilliant, fresh, original sense of the contradictory Sixties—the music, the politics, the people. No one has done more to place the era in context—its own and ours."
Katha Pollitt, The Nation
Set in the early 1900s in the American West, this captivating true story centers on Echols's (Barbra Streisand Chair of Contemporary Gender Studies, Univ. of Southern California; Scars of Sweet Paradise) grandfather and his family's dramatic rise and fall associated with the building and loan industry during the Great Depression. Unlike the happy ending in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, this story is more complex, filled with family secrets, schemes, and swindles. Surprisingly similar to many movies of the time that depict wealthy individuals engaging in extravagant spending and lifestyles, Echols's relatives actually enjoyed such a life. The title "shortfall" has a double meaning and can allude to character deficits and corrupted moral values. Echols's style is honest and gripping, and readers will be hooked from start to finish as the story unfolds with discoveries of letters and memorabilia in the family home and concludes with the question of whether the family hid treasures and monies yet to be uncovered. Echols's extensive research efforts are reflected in the many photos, primary documents, and notes. VERDICT Because of its historical accuracy, this book provides many insights about American culture and economy and is therefore recommended for both public and academic collections.—Caroline Geck, Somerset, NJ
How discovering the truth about her banker grandfather enabled the author to unlock much that has been forgotten about the Great Depression era.A chance conversation with her father launched Echols (History and Gender Studies/Univ. of Southern California; Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, 2010, etc.) on an investigative journey that included attempts to elicit remembrances from her mother and visits to libraries in search of the real Walter Davis, a building and loan officer in Colorado Springs. The discovery of boxes of material after her mother died was crucial. The family had passed down the story that the unmentionable grandfather was an embezzler, and he was driven to suicide after desperate efforts to generate cash from his life insurance policies to pay off some of the creditors of his insolvent bank and try to provide for his wife's future. In the author's hands, her family's story becomes a counterpoint to Frank Capra's feel-good romance It's a Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart as the small-town banker. But it is more than that, as Echols sets Davis' story against the background of the financial excesses of the 1920s, which led inexorably to insolvency, bankruptcy, and the catastrophe of the Great Depression. Like her family's own history, much of this back story has been largely hidden or blocked out, but Echols revives it. Back then, excessive house construction and shady mortgage finance led to insolvency and financial collapse, a situation that calls to mind current practices. Throughout, the author's personal story meshes well with her history of building and loan associations. "The collapse of these associations," she writes, "like the all too common failure of state-chartered banks, affected millions of Americans." A lively and informative treatment in which one man's rise and fall opens a window onto a long-overlooked historical landscape in all its finely drawn detail.