Review: Strangers in Their Own Land

By Steph Ryde

Last month, the DAUK Women’s Caucus Book Club met in the Waterstones Cafe in Piccadilly to discuss Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land

Hochschild’s book, published by The New Press in 2016, boldly promises on the cover that it is “a journey to the heart of our political divide,” examining “anger and mourning on the American Right.” 

The award-winning author started this journey on a quest to surmount her own “empathy wall,” which she describes as “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.” This quest brought Hochschild to rural Louisiana to spend time with members of the Tea Party and understand their reasons and rationale for voting for a party that does not appear to have its members’ best interests at heart.  

The book starts by examining industry and the environment in Louisiana. Hochschild describes the industries that have come into the area and how their practices have destroyed not only the environment and the natural areas where they operate, but also the lives of their workers and the communities they live in.  Hochschild introduces families that have lost loved ones to cancer across several generations. Entire neighborhoods that have been abandoned due to sink holes and pollution so bad that it makes the area uninhabitable.  

These chapters deliver on the anger mentioned on the cover. I found myself angry at the situation and angry at the government giving incentives to industries that ultimately destroy the lives of its people.  Perhaps most of all, these chapters cause anger to boil up towards the individuals whose lives and history are being destroyed but who are too afraid or too engrossed in Tea Party culture to do anything about it. 

Throughout the book we meet Louisianans who all hang their hopes on the Tea Party for a variety of reasons.  You have the “team players,” who feel that they are playing the role of the government by helping out their community.  Next there are the “worhsippers,” who feel that the church should be the center of the community and that rewards will be given in heaven as opposed to in this life.  

The “cowboys” come next, who take risks with little fear and will not allow themselves to be labeled as victims — no matter how bad things get. Finally there are the “rebels,” who are loyal to their Tea Party community in their ideals and voting record but who are pushing for something to be done about the surrounding environment.

Overall Hochschild delivers an insightful, hard-hitting book that — if the reader can get past the initial anger — also invokes mourning for the situation these people find themselves in.  She strives to take the reader over their own “empathy wall” using facts and interviews to try and understand what lies on the other side.  

However, these people don’t want the reader’s mourning and they don’t want their sympathy.  Clinging to their nostalgia and hope that if you work hard you can make a better life for yourself, they keep forging ahead, looking over the hill to what they hope is the American dream — even if instead the horizon, under the Republican leadership, only holds more of the same. 

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