I read Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics last year when I was in search of a text that would A. layout a basic and linguistically accessible history of eugenics suitable for a first- and second-year undergraduate audience and B. be cheap enough to assign as a required text. Rutherford’s Control fit my requirements across the board (but, I opted not to assign it as a required purchase).
Control is a very well-written popular press style non-fiction; Rutherford superbly breaks down what might be confusing historical and academic jargon into easy language and approaches this complicated subject with an eye towards a neophyte reader, a reader who has an interest but not preexisting knowledge of eugenics at all. The book therefore unfolds in chronological order, permitting the reader to develop and understanding of the historical and popular narrative of eugenics as it was understood in various moments of time.
The beginning of the book outlines the birth and rise of eugenics as a popular real and pseudo- science, starting with Francis Galton, and ending with the present, the tinkering of Dolly the sheep’s DNA and duplication as well as other unethical uses of reproductive science. As a historian I found the first half of the book very useful; it was this half which enticed me to use it in my history courses.
The second half of the book diverges into more contemporary concerns and reads as distinctly editorial; there is no hiding Rutherford’s intentions here — nor should there be. I wholehearted agree with Rutherford’s concerns about the future uses of eugenics and what this means for human rights and humanity as a whole. But Rutherford was preaching to the choir here; leaving me well aware that I am not the target audience for this work. Nevertheless, I would encourage everyone to read Control since it doesn’t harm anyone to revisit the horrors of eugenics.
Overall, a very readable and thought-provoking book. References are sparse (for a work of scholarship), but fully adequate for a popular press non-fiction and useful for the interested reader to delve deeper into the topic.
Unnatural Ends reads like a French six-course dinner prepared and delivered by the latest cohort of Top Chef, served in the very classy digs of Downton Abbey, while you and your guests find yourself flung into a live-action Gosford Park; in short, this novel is the quintessential English manor-murder-mystery, updated for the 2022 reader. There is a hint of Mavis Hay’s (1936) Santa Klaus Murder here, a bit of Agatha Christie, and a good strong nod to the immorality of the British Empire (though, nothing quite so dark as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day). This novel is unbelievably English.
I loved it.
It did take me a few chapters to fully dig into the thrill of the case, but the family was so immediately deranged and dysfunctional, I couldn’t look away any more than if I encountered a train accident and found it to be the wreckage of the Orient Express.
The story begins with the death of the patriarch — his ghastly murder — and the strange clause in his will that disproportionately favors any of his adopted children who solves the crime. The novel unfolds from that point on in a predictable fashion for any mystery, but the ending and the twists of blood, family, and the loyalties of genetics kept this reader on her toes. Just when this reader thought she’d solved it, something emerged which threw her off! Between the three siblings, the pathetic mother and widow, the overbearing and sadistic father, and the eye-rolling police, Unnatural Ends delivers a very witty enjoyable read from start to finish.
For the reader who enjoys more than mystery, the novel also possesses several threads of underlying social and historical commentary. Britain’s dark imperial history, rife with its undeniable racism and eugenic standards of morality, are key foundational elements of the plot. Indeed, the cruel history of eugenics and colonialism are integral to the constituency of its characters and the motivations behind the twists and ruts of this mystery. On that note, however, the novel is not pedantic or a history lesson: it is wholly a mystery novel.
A student recently asked me in class, “Why are there reprints of books? Why do they get reprinted?” Among the reasons I gave them was this one: “Sometimes new information emerges and something important needs to be added. Or, sometimes, the content of the book becomes relevant again, given certain events or things that are happening right now.” I added, “Remember, history is less about the past, than it is a reflection of our present moment or our desire for what we want our future to look like.”
Sterling’s My Name is Seepeetza, the 30th anniversary edition epitomizes this reason. The recent discovery of several hundred bodies of indigenous children buried and hidden at several residential schools across Canada — Fort Pelly, St Phillip, St John, just to name three — is a heavy reminder that the state sanctioned annihilation of Canada’s indigenous culture and peoples over the past four centuries is not a remnant of the past, but a living monster that still lives and looms over the lives of the 150,000 children and their countless descendants.
This is a living trauma, its horror and long reach remain unknown.
For this reason alone, I am considering using this book in my next iteration of a 100-level history course I teach to undergraduates for this reason.
Sterling’s accessible, authentic prose in the voice of a young girl only gives me more reason to assign it as a course reading. The length is perfect for a semester and the format in epistolary style as a diary allows me to use this in class, for small group work within the time constraints of a class session or for short individual activities.
The content though is the main appeal here. Sterling’s own experiences makes My Name is Seepeetza all the more powerful, opens an avenue for an educator to discuss this in more depth as a primary source, as a part of historical record, opens the door for historical discussions and framing it within a larger landscape of indigenous history, gendered and racial violence. My Name is Seepeetza hits on the major nerves: language weaponized, education as violence, eugenics, parenting as cultural intervention, skin color and its tormented relationship with race and ethnic autochthony. History.
A reprint is not merely a revival, it is a reflection and delivery of knowledge we need right now.
Like many people I have a deep personal fascination with World War II (much influenced by my professional interests in this time period), but I was unsure if I wanted to read a book — fiction or otherwise — centered on so evil a person, a human being capable of having inflicted so much suffering on others. Indeed, the first third of the novel made me rather queasy: Should I be more detached from this historical material? Should I be reading this with a massive grain of salt? Should I be enjoying this read?
And that’s the thing: The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel is a captivating, enjoyable read. Guez’s prose is irrepressibly smooth, the plot is compelling and thrusts the reader forward, his characterization of Mengele is fascinating, successful, human. I did not want to like him — and here I think is Guez’s brilliance — I did not end up liking this horrendous human being, in fact, my distaste for him was confirmed, but Guez prevailed on me to acknowledge Mengele as a member of my own species. By the end of the book, I could not deny that Mengele and I shared a common sense of existence, a common biology, that he and I were human. And I therefore must confront the real horror of Nazi eugnenics and racism: humanity is cruelest to its own and any study of our inherent nature must accept our own cruelty.
Josef Mengele — in all his aliases (Pedro, Peter, Helmut, Wolfgang, so many others) — was not the only character in Guez’s meticulously researched historical novel who brought me to this uncomfortable realization. Mengele’s first wife, Irene; his second wife and ex-sister-in-law, Martha; his unwanted lover, Gitta; his father, Karl; and his mother, Walburga are those who inflict cruelties — justified or not, minor or abusive — on Mengele. This does not excuse Mengele, but in terms of a fictionalized view, Guez gives us a window into his psyche,
This novel is not about Mengele per se, it is a layered dissection of the interaction of individuals, their subjective desires, and their collective obligations as these factors intersect with history and its unavoidable tides. Guez writes without pretending any unique insight into Mengele’s interiority. That which Guez assumes and invents is well within the parameters of fiction; his characterization of Mengele is plausible, the world Guez constructs is recognizable as our own. I want to note that Guez’s deep research into the topic is visible, appreciated, exemplary. If only most writers of historical fiction did this. For historians, professional, hobby, and emergent, Guez’s brief but detailed note on sources is a fantastic bonus. But, I digress, the book isn’t about Mengele; it is about all that made the disappearance possible.
Therefore, added to the above cast is the vast network of enablers that made Mengele’s escape and assimilation possible. These friends, politicians, extended family members, and indeed all the clerks, secretaries, and supporting unnamed persons make the horror even more palpable — as tangible as the sense of the person sitting in the office next to me, the odor of my fellow-commuters on public transports, the sound of a door closing elsewhere in my apartment building. These people are not the cowardly or indifferent Germans who made the Third Reich and its genocide of Jews, Roma, and so many others possible, no, what Guez forces the reader to recognize is that there are people who are willingly complicit in promoting and preserving the genocidal, racist ideologies of the Nazis — and others like it. Juan and Evita Perón and their institutionalized obsession with Nazism and Fascism, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, officials in Germany from the highest levels of the state down to the municipality of Günzberg, where the Mengele family was headquartered and ran their multinational corporation from, and so many others were thrilled to be part of the Nazi machine, during and after WWII. Some were motivated by their own ambitions, others by a sense of loyalty, others by fanatical belief in Mengele’s work and Nazism. Guez brings this massive conspiracy to life, peoples it with individuals we recognize in our own lives.
There are also those individuals who were completely hoodwinked by Mengele, and therein lies the other side of this story. I hesitate to say this is the “redeeming” aspect of Guez’s novel; no, it is better described as a more recognizable payoff. Their stories are those which we expect to see in a novel like this; these are the characters whose snubs and betrayals serve as rewards for sitting through the horrors I have described above. When Mengele’s son, Rolf; his dog, Heinrich Lyons; his landlords, Geza and Gitta; and later, Elsa abandon Mengele, the reader is bound to exclaim, “Yes! Finally!” and feel a rush of tingly righteousness.
Still, mingled with this happier sensation is a sadness: it is not enough that Rolf Mengele refused his name, freezes out his father, it is bittersweet that Heinrich Lyons dies (no spoiler here, what dog outlives a man who lives into his late 60s?). I will not spoil what happens with Elsa, Geza, or Gitta. The reader cannot forget that an exhausted and geopolitically influenced Mossad had to redirect its efforts away from Mengele’s capture and lose the opportunity to deliver some closure and justice to the millions affected by the Shoah. The fact that Mengele’s story rolls on to the novels end is an unhappy reminder that the cruelties Mengele experienced were in no way comparable to that which he inflicted on others.
For all the nuance and complications woven into the characters interactions, the plot is straightforward: it is an account of how this sadistic individual got away with it and how he did not fully escape the consequences and punishment of a kind. There is a sense of satisfying comeuppance, though the degree to which any reader will feel vindicated will vary. I was glad that Mengele could not live in peace, but the measure of his penalties was small in comparison to the magnitude of his crimes. That too is Guez’s point: fate is not bound by any moral scale. There is no equilibrium in justice.
A note on audience: Because of the multiple meanings this novel could convey its merits could be misconstrued, its story could be twisted to serve neo-Nazi tendencies if read without some guidance or instruction for some readers. For that reason, I would not recommend this as a book for novice historians, undergraduate students, or for use in a classroom — except, perhaps, a graduate seminar. The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel requires dissection with historical guidance for readers who have less experience working with or knowledge of the histories this novel is built on.