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The Boys in the Bunkhouse
Cover of The Boys in the Bunkhouse
The Boys in the Bunkhouse
Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland
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With this Dickensian tale from America's heartland, New York Times writer and columnist Dan Barry tells the harrowing yet uplifting story of the exploitation and abuse of a resilient group of men with...
With this Dickensian tale from America's heartland, New York Times writer and columnist Dan Barry tells the harrowing yet uplifting story of the exploitation and abuse of a resilient group of men with...
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  • With this Dickensian tale from America's heartland, New York Times writer and columnist Dan Barry tells the harrowing yet uplifting story of the exploitation and abuse of a resilient group of men with intellectual disability, and the heroic efforts of those who helped them to find justice and reclaim their lives.

    In the tiny Iowa farm town of Atalissa, dozens of men, all with intellectual disability and all from Texas, lived in an old schoolhouse. Before dawn each morning, they were bussed to a nearby processing plant, where they eviscerated turkeys in return for food, lodging, and $65 a month. They lived in near servitude for more than thirty years, enduring increasing neglect, exploitation, and physical and emotional abuse—until state social workers, local journalists, and one tenacious labor lawyer helped these men achieve freedom.

    Drawing on exhaustive interviews, Dan Barry dives deeply into the lives of the men, recording their memories of suffering, loneliness and fleeting joy, as well as the undying hope they maintained despite their traumatic circumstances. Barry explores how a small Iowa town remained oblivious to the plight of these men, analyzes the many causes for such profound and chronic negligence, and lays out the impact of the men's dramatic court case, which has spurred advocates—including President Obama—to push for just pay and improved working conditions for people living with disabilities.

    A luminous work of social justice, told with compassion and compelling detail, The Boys in the Bunkhouse is more than just inspired storytelling. It is a clarion call for a vigilance that ensures inclusion and dignity for all.

 

Awards-

About the Author-

  • Dan Barry is a reporter and columnist for the New York Times. In 1994 he was part of an investigative team at the Providence Journal that won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles on Rhode Island's justice system. He is the author of a memoir, a collection of his About New York columns, and Bottom of the 33rd, for which he won the 2012 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 28, 2016
    New York Times columnist Barry (Bottom of the 33rd) weaves a moving tale of how a group of 32 mentally disabled men from Texas were rescued in 2009 after decades of servitude. Through a state program, the men were first put to work in the 1960s at a turkey processing plant in Texas. Then, in 1974, they were moved to another plant in Atalissa, Iowa. There, they lived in an abandoned schoolhouse and eviscerated turkeys in return for room, board, and (low) wages. Over the years, the outside world changed, but theirs did not. They became more isolated from the local community, worked ceaselessly, and were neglected and abused. Only through the efforts of dedicated people, including Iowa state social worker Natalie Neel-McGlaughlin, Des Moines investigative journalist Clark Kauffman, and Texas labor lawyer Robert Canino, were the men eventually able to leave. Their stories, pieced together through extensive research and interviews, are both riveting and often difficult to read, though Barry tries to end on a positive note. Still, his descriptions of overdue reunions and the list recounting “where they are now” is a bleak testament to what happened to 32 men over decades of neglect.

  • Library Journal

    April 15, 2016

    Atalissa, Iowa, 2009. Acting on a tip, a social worker discovered dozens of older men with intellectual disabilities living in squalid conditions and exploited as cheap labor for 40-odd years. The men were tasked with eviscerating turkeys on a slaughterhouse assembly line--filthy, grinding work that netted them a paltry $65 a month along with a string of humiliations by their bosses. Veteran New York Times reporter Barry, who first documented this story for the Times in 2014, describes grown adults being put on time-outs like children and handcuffed to their beds. The author also recounts equally problematic paternalism as the bosses of Henry's Turkey Service occasionally took their employees on outings to brothels or bars. Meanwhile, Atalissa's townsfolk and various state agencies remained largely oblivious. Many of the men were previously institutionalized at Austin State School in Texas. In the 1960s, the state discharged them to work on ranches, hoping they would become self-supporting taxpayers. Lack of regulation paved the way for exploitation, culminating in a landmark 2013 verdict in the U.S. District Court. VERDICT Barry never reduces the men to victimhood; their personalities and joys spring vividly from the pages. Overall, the author presents a troubling case study of commercial exploitation and a wake-up call on how America treats its most vulnerable citizens.--Michael Rodriguez, Hodges Univ. Lib., Naples, FL

    Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    April 1, 2016
    A gripping indictment of society's treatment of "losers." In 1966, a pilot program at the Abilene State School in Texas moved six developmentally disabled men to a ranch run by T.H. Johnson, who agreed to teach the "boys," as he called them, basic agricultural skills. They would be paid a pittance and board at the ranch, saving the state money and providing Johnson with a source of very cheap labor. Award-winning New York Times writer and columnist Barry (Bottom of the 33rd: Hope and Redemption in Baseball's Longest Game, 2012, etc.) rivetingly chronicles the lives of these men and 26 more who worked for the irascible Johnson at his turkey processing plant in Texas and, later, in Atalissa, Iowa. From 1974 until 2009, Johnson's workers, living in filthy, decrepit housing, were paid far below minimum wage, from which room and board were deducted; were denied medical and dental care; and were violently abused by their overseers. Every day, they caught, killed, and gutted turkeys, work, Barry writes, that was "hard...and repetitive, a bloody, filthy, feathery mess." Along the way, a social worker discovered the "slave-labor camp" and reported the "human-rights horror" to the Iowa Department of Social Services only to be told that the company's operation--a "for-profit business model with a paternalistic overlay of limited freedoms and routine discipline"--seemed legitimate. The townspeople of Atalissa liked the "boys," who sometimes came to town, marched in parades, and bought candy with their small allowances, and the men were proud to be workers; they didn't openly complain. But one man's sister, desperate over her brother's plight, caught the attention of a tenacious investigative reporter, whose expose shocked the nation. Finally, social services sprang to action, and the men were extricated, cared for, and embraced by those who had long ignored them. Gently, empathetically, and indelibly, Barry conveys a tale of unthinkable brutality.

    COPYRIGHT(2016) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from May 1, 2016
    Throughout the small town of Atalissa, Iowa, they were known as the boys. Originally from Texas, this group of men with intellectual disabilities lived together in a former schoolhouse, from which they were bused to grinding workdays at the turkey plant, from 1974 until 2009. New York Times columnist Barry details the decades these men spent living and working in unimaginably horrid conditions, despite newspaper and government investigations into the arrangement. He dives deep into their lives and the regulations that created this situation, a tangled web of legislation and changing attitudes toward the treatment of those with disabilities. While standards in the wider world for supporting people with intellectual disabilities shifted from institutionalization to inclusion, the situation in Atalissa remained remarkably unchanged. With passion, energy, and understated eloquence, Barry examines how this happened, while sharing the stories of the men and those who cared for them. A resounding investigation of how America treated some of its most vulnerable citizens, shocking in its details, this is a masterful story of long-delayed justice.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2016, American Library Association.)

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Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland
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