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.)