Tuesday, June 05, 2018


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The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Kermit Alexander, Atria Books, 2015, 315 pp
Oh my, this was tough, both due to the subject matter and to the somewhat inept writing.
Being the world's least sports-minded person, I had never heard of Kermit Alexander. He is a retired NFL All-Pro cornerback who played for the San Francisco 49ers, the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles. He is a Black man born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.

His co-writers (not ghost writers because they are credited by name) Alex Gerould and Jeff Snipes are criminal justice professors at San Francisco State University. Creative non-fiction is clearly not their forte. The Bookie Babes were unanimous on the terrible clunkiness of the writing.

Los Angeles is the city where I live, though I am on the outskirts. South Central is deep in the ghetto and in 1984 was beset by drugs, gangs and violence. Some of the brothers there were responsible for the urban legend about blacks killing blacks.

On August 31, 1984, three armed men broke into the home of Kermit's grandmother and slaughtered her, his sister, and two of his nephews. The book tells the story of this seemingly senseless act of violence from the viewpoint of Kermit Alexander. It covers his coming of age in the 1950s, his family history, and the many years of police investigation and trials. The perpetrators were all eventually discovered, the reason for the crime determined, and the perps sent to prison with the death penalty. But Kermit and his remaining family were almost destroyed in the aftermath by their loss and some of the attitudes towards them.

I guess conditions are better in South Central these days but it is still a ghetto, drug fueled and killing the hopes of black children who are born and raised there. I just felt ruined by what I learned from this book and being forced to really confront what goes on in a neighborhood less than 30 miles from where I live.

One of the most informative parts of the book was a history of gangs in American cities. The shootings of Alexander's family members were traced to Crips, one of LA's most infamous gangs. They have a deep network in and out of and between the prisons and life on the streets.

Another educational point was the interaction of the death penalty with the fates of those who receive that as their punishment. I have read about some of that in other books but in this one it was more thoroughly covered. Capital punishment is still the law in California though there has not been an execution since 2006. Close to 750 prisoners are on death row in the state. It is one gnarly topic.

Kermit Alexander did finally recover from his decades of obsession with the murders and rebuilt his family. I am glad I read the book, as horrific as the story is, but I will tell you it was not easy.

One of the Bookie Babes, who recommended the book, is the wife of a retired policeman and the mother of a current one. She assured us that big improvements have been made in the police force as regards brutality, racism and workable community programs. I believe her but there is a long way to go and it is not only in law enforcement that change is needed.

I recommend the book, as well as Paul Beatty's novel, The Sellout. All of the Babes agreed that if we intend to be the change we want to see in the world, we cannot say we are too faint of heart to read such books.

(The Valley of the Shadow of Death is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


  1. Sounds like a very heavy read, but as you stated so well ~ "I recommend the book, as well as Paul Beatty's novel, The Sellout. All of the Babes agreed that if we intend to be the change we want to see in the world, we cannot say we are too faint of heart to read such books."

    Very good review!

  2. Goodness me! You were right to warn about the tough subject matter. I'm glad that Kermit was able to regain some semblance of normalcy about such an unspeakable tragedy.

    Kudos to you and your book club for reading it and discussing this book. Maybe someday I'll be brave enough to read books like this. Just not yet, I'm still in the light lit phase.

    1. We all come to things in our own time. A few years ago the Bookie Babes would never have chosen to read something like this.

  3. This certainly sounds like a challenging read, a book that was written based on hard experience. It's too bad that the quality of writing could not have been better, but one must admire Mr. Alexander for his effort and for his willingness to tell the story. It's also interesting that you mention The Sellout in which the writing was quite stellar and Paul Beatty used satire and humor to tell an appalling story about racism.

    1. I know what you mean about Paul Beatty. In fact I just read an interview with him the other day. Odd how both approaches can accomplish a similar thing.

  4. It sounds like a very strong cup of coffee, so to speak. I follow sports but dont know of the author or his story. It's hard to imagine what he's been thru. How did the discussion of it go with the book group? It seems a brave pick.

    1. We had a long, long discussion. Especially since it is such a local story and because the member who suggested it is from a police family. And because we are all people who deplore racism and violence and wish we could do more to change it.