The Boys in the Bunkhouse – Book Review

“A couple dozen disabled men. All from Texas. Living in an old boarded up schoolhouse out in Atalissa. For decades. Eviscerating turkeys in a meat-processing plant. For decades. Financially exploited. For decades.” (Barry, 2016)

The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland is written by Dan Barry, both a reporter and a columnist for the New York Times. He investigates a lead which blossoms into a story about the abuse of physically and intellectually disabled men in Iowa.  “The Boys”, as they were known, 21 of them, were living in an old schoolhouse, working in a turkey processing plant while being financially exploited and becoming over decades the forgotten and the unwanted.

Barry’s style of writing is raw and pungent.  It is purely journalistic with underlying sensitivity; though he is the journalist telling the story, he is also part of the story. This book is an extended feature piece with great description that gives the reader mental images of what it was actually like to live in that bunkhouse. He provides details on how they were punished if they were thought to not be working, how they lived on $65 a month, were called names, hit, kicked, forced to stand with their hands on a pole, and handcuffed to the bed. The bunkhouse was infested with roaches and rat feces. These men were living under inhuman conditions and the people of Atalissa failed to notice the neglect and exploitation. They were promised a tidy retirement but those of retirement age were put in a nursing home with a life savings of $80.

This story is reminiscent of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. The bleakness of the Great Depression exemplified in the Steinbeck novel and the indignity suffered by the characters resonates in The Boys in the Bunkhouse. The men in the bunkhouse wanted to work, silently existed, and were in essence part of community life without the rights and dignity of citizenship.

Dan Barry presents the aftermath of an attempt to find workers and pay them a low income after it was no longer possible to have Mexican workers come into the state around 1964.  The idea arose to train and pay institutionalized men to do simple work on farms and in factories. In this narration, Barry is depicting the evil that ensues as soon as men or women are objectified and their inherent dignity is denied.

This book speaks to those who know what suffering is. It is also a reminder to those who do not consider the other person as equal or deserving as they are that everyone is important. No one deserves what those men went through.

“Men with physical and mental disabilities, living in an old schoolhouse, eviscerating turkeys for very little money, for decades.” (Barry, 2016)

References

Barry, D. (2016). The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

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