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Short Takes

‘The Child Catchers,’ ‘The Home Jar,’ and ‘My Beloved Brontosaurus’

The Child Catchers:

Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel

of Adoption

By Kathryn Joyce

Public Affairs, 332 pp., $26.99

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“Well-meaning people can enable tragedy with their good intentions,” Kathryn Joyce writes in this razor-sharp investigation into adoption. Although lauded as a humane and wholly positive solution to unwanted pregnancies (a “win-win” in popular rhetoric), domestic adoption too often involves manipulation, coercion, and intimidation of mothers, Joyce argues. She writes of a new emphasis on adoption in conservative Christian circles — often focusing on a Bible verse, James 1:27, that asks the faithful to look after widows and orphans — that has spawned a paradigm converting any unmarried pregnant woman into a birth mother, her child into an orphan (caring for widows is forgotten). During what’s now known as the Baby Scoop Era, which spanned from 1945 to 1972, societal stigma against single-motherhood and lack of birth control or abortion services combined to provide a steady stream of available babies. These days it’s much harder to get a single woman to relinquish a child for adoption; perhaps unsurprisingly, some Christian adoption agencies work (overtly or covertly) with so-called crisis pregnancy centers to recruit birth mothers. On the international front, American religiously-affiliated agencies warn of an “orphan crisis” and battle watchdog organizations who cite baby buying, forged documents, trafficking, and other abuses.

In her previous book, Joyce took on the so-called quiverfull movement, families who adhered to strict gender roles, eschew contraception, and pride themselves on mass-producing offspring. Her reporting here is similarly deep and devastating. Joyce is sympathetic to prospective adoptive parents, most of whom sincerely believe that they are rescuing an otherwise helpless orphan, and to birth mothers who felt discarded and degraded by the process by which they made another parent’s dreams come true. But for those who deride single mothers who keep their babies as “selfish” or justify dividing intact families in developing countries because “[w]e can’t compare first world families with third world families” — and especially those who make money by redistributing babies, like Bethany Christian Services, an evangelical adoption agency, which posted revenue of $75 million in 2011 — Joyce wields only righteous scorn.

The Home Jar

By Nancy Zafris

Switchgrass, 167 pp., paperback, $16.95

The characters in Nancy Zafris’s new story collection work: There’s a farm worker, a realtor, an American teaching English in the Czech Republic. We meet them as they navigate the knotted landscapes of power, money, and identity, arenas often invisible in contemporary short fiction. There’s a sense of dislocation, difficulty, and hard times in these stories – money is real here, as it is in real life. A former culinary wunderkind finds himself cooking for small-time businessmen at a Midwestern resort. An Eritrean refugee cleans hotel rooms and does anything he can to afford his nephew’s Americanized tastes.

While conjuring a sense of struggle and even dread, Zafris writes with both compassion and wit, as well as almost thrilling zigzags of emotion, as in the thoughts of a Japanese flight attendant on a Rome layover: “Boredom. I am bored. It’s hardly a violent experience. Then it would at least have something to recommend it.” Zafris writes prose so clean and strong we almost don’t notice the magic by which she renders the familiar strange, and the strange achingly familiar.

My Beloved Brontosaurus:

On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs

By Brian Switek

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 256 pp., illustrated, $26

The dinosaur bug bit Brian Switek early; he introduces himself as “a five-year-old prehistory fanatic” in this book, and the chapters that follow confirm how little that enthusiasm has waned. Switek’s dinomania is infectious. The book charms with the author’s passionate curiosity about a group of animals that appeared in the Triassic era, conquered most of the competition during the Jurassic period, then disappeared, victims of a still-mysterious grand extinction (Switek calls it “an abominable enigma”) that occurred at the end of the Cretaceous. (Here he would remind readers that not all dinosaurs are extinct: birds, Switek points out, are technically dinosaurs.)

As one might expect from a man whose wife told him on his way to a paleontologist’s estate sale, “Don’t bring home any dinosaurs” — an order he disobeyed — “My Beloved Brontosaurus” is half guidebook, half love note. Switek lays out an accessible, rich history of these creatures, along the way meditating on the larger issues raised by their ancient lives and our modern study of them, including our evolving understanding of evolution, the role of personality and bias in the scientific process, and the psychology of just what we humans see in these fascinating monsters.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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