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Three Famines: Starvation and Politicsby Thomas Keneally
Synopses & Reviews
Through the lens of three of the most devastating food crises in modern history—the Górta Mor of British-ruled Ireland, the great famine of British-ruled Bengal in 1943, and the string of famines that plagued Ethiopia during the 1970s and 1980s, Booker Prizewinning author Thomas Keneally vividly evokes the terrible cost of mass starvation at the level of the individual who starves and the nation that watches. Famine is widely misunderstood as a completely natural catastrophe. Keneally recounts that while the triggers—crop, pestilence, and drought—are natural, the political and ideological choices that prolong famine are man-made. Government neglect and individual venality, not food shortages, are historically the causes of sustained, widespread hunger.
In Ireland, British authorities ignored the existence of a food crisis while the famished fed on diseased cattle and human remains. In Bengal, where over four million starved to death, Field Marshal Archibald Wavells reports of people dying in Calcuttas streets and demands for relief resulted in little more than a mocking cable from Winston Churchill asking, why, if food was so scarce, hadnt Gandhi died yet? In Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam arranged for 400,000 bottles of whisky to ship to Addis Ababa from Britain to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the revolution that put him in power, while one person died every twenty minutes in Korem. These three famines are stark examples of how throughout history, racial preconceptions, administrative neglect, and incompetence have been more lethal than the initiating blights or crop failures. Keneallys startling narrative history is a sobering warning to the authorities in charge of mercy in our time to stop making choices that feed famine instead of the starving.
"In this vivid but muddled comparative history, novelist and journalist Keneally (Schindler's List) studies three great famines and finds weather, insects, and disease less culpable than misguided, punitive, and sometimes murderous government policies. The Irish potato famine, Keneally argues, was instigated by a fungus, but then compounded by British free market dogmas and trade policies (which he doesn't sufficiently explain), miserly food aid, and the eviction of starving tenants by cruel landlords. He chalks up the Bengal famine of 1943 — 1944 to British military policies that requisitioned grain and hindered food imports into the Indian province following floods and bad harvests. In his starkest example, he contends that Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and '80s were triggered by drought and worms, but made catastrophic by repression, civil war, and the forcible resettlement of ethnic minorities. Keneally's anecdotal accounts of suffering and misrule are colorful and affecting. Unfortunately, his thematic approach makes a coherent narrative of each famine difficult, and his contentious interpretations lack the requisite scholarly apparatus. (His suggestion that actual dearth of food was a minor factor needs a firmer grounding in statistics.) Keneally's case for famine as a manmade disaster is important, but it deserves a more systematic development. (Aug.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Famine may be triggered by nature but its outcome arises from politics and ideology. In Three Famines, award-winning author Thomas Keneally uncovers the troubling truth—that sustained widespread hunger is historically the outcome of government neglect and individual venality. Through the lens of three of the most disastrous famines in modern history—the potato famine in Ireland, the famine in Bengal in 1943, and the string of famines that plagued Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s— Keneally shows how ideology, mindsets of governments, racial preconceptions, and administrative incompetence were, ultimately, more lethal than the initiating blights or crop failures.
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.
About the Author
Thomas Keneally won the Booker Prize in 1982 with Schindlers Ark, later made into the Academy Award-winning film Schindlers List by Steven Spielberg. He has written ten works of non-fiction, including his recent memoir Searching for Schindler. His novels The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Gossip From the Forest, and Confederates were all shortlisted for the Booker Prize, while Bring Larks and Heroes and Three Cheers for the Parclete won the Miles Franklin Award. He lives in Australia.
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