Books describing authors undertaking unusual projects are one of the hottest trends in publishing these days. The projects can be silly -- reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary -- or they can be more serious, as when Judith Levine went a year without buying anything but necessities. Better versions of these books use the experience to reflect on a larger issue. Levine, for example, turned her year without buying anything into an exploration of American consumerism.
Kath Weston's new book, Traveling Light: On the Road with America's Poor, fits into this latter category. Weston spent six years crisscrossing the United States on intercity buses (mostly Greyhound). Her book recounts her experience, compiling the stories of many of her fellow riders and reflecting on the America passing outside. These reflections, interspersed with studies, government policies, and statistical data amount to a resentful critique of the way poorer Americans have to live.
In the main, she set out to turn those statistics about poverty into something real, into people "living out poverty," as she puts it. And it works, to a certain extent. The stories of those she meets are warm, touching, sad, funny, but -- and perhaps this is a consequence of the nature of riding the bus -- they waft by so quickly that there's little to hold on to. These highway tales are rendered in a few paragraphs and then they're gone, leaving only questions behind.
The people, too, are made to work double-duty: Their stories are recounted, but they are also used as segues into discussions of the broader phenomena that they represent. This is the important link, between faces and statistics, but it often ends up blotting out the riders. Too quickly, they turn back into that number and their uniqueness disappears.
Most frustrating, then, is time spent detailing Weston's personal journeys. Her purpose is to show the difficulties inherent in traveling poor -- how no healthy food is available; how if you become sick on the road and can't afford a hotel, you're helpless; how traveling for work on unpredictable buses make it harder to get that new job -- and indeed, she succeeds in this. There's really no need, though, for her to write "I walk over to Lake Michigan to practice qigong, a kind of moving meditation related to tai chi" and elaborate on it. Indeed, I'd much rather hear more about the three Amish girls training to be teachers from a few pages back.
Amidst the stories, Weston sprinkles trenchant, disheartening observations about American society and government. Something those who don't ride intercity buses might take for granted is not having their journey interrupted and raided by immigration officials or police. But in the Southwest, immigration officials routinely stop buses and search among the passengers for undocumented immigrants. One might also expect the United States government to honor its treaty obligations to provide health care to Native Americans. And it does, to a point: Indian Health Service "per capita spending amount[s] to only a third of what the average American" pays. One might even celebrate that the gap between women's pay and men's pay has diminished since the 70's -- until one realizes that most of the equalization came as a result not of increases in women's pay, but of decreasing pay for men. It's in observations like these, about the petty, stupid, and vicious little ways our society makes it harder for poorer people to succeed, that Traveling Light is at its best.
The insidious ways society keeps poorer people down make Weston furious. Yet much of her anger manifests itself in resentment of people who have more and this is misplaced. By demonizing wealthier people, she alienates potential allies. Wealthier people who could be enlisted into the struggle against the conditions that cause poverty are unlikely to enter into an alliance with someone who deems them culpable. It's not so simple as the rich stealing from the poor; structural inequalities are not the fault of the average upper-middle class person. It's fair to criticize them for not recognizing the effect these inequalities have, but it's hardly fair to criticize someone who has taken advantage of their own fortunate circumstances for creating those circumstances.
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