Abby's Reviews > The Jungle

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
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Mar 12, 10

bookshelves: fiction, food-and-environment
Read in June, 2009

The 5-star rating is a bit deceptive -- I'm not enjoying reading this book at all -- I've been reading it before bed and having horrible dreams -- but it is well-done and effective.

I've heard about The Jungle my whole life as the book that turned people into vegetarians, and also the book the prompted much food regulation in the early 1900's, but in the struggle of Jurgis and Ona and family I see ongoing struggles faced by my legal aid clients and continuing scams wrought upon poor people that keep them always struggling to make ends meet.

Upton Sinclair's choice to tell the story of the inhuman, unregulated conditions in the packing industry through a fictional, human narrative was a brilliant and effective one. Rather than state coldly the hours worked by the starving immigrant class, he is able to show it through the characters' exhaustion, hunger, missing body parts, fatal illnesses, and lost dreams. Rather than describe how upside-down lending practices were regularly used to divest people of every last penny (a practice I still see often as a consumer law attorney on the rez), we see how the characters invest all their hope and money in the picture of homeownership for substandard housing only to be cast out when they inevitably miss one of the hidden costs.

This book also has a particular poignancy for me as an Evanstonian -- I was raised in a comfortable middle class existence about 20 miles from the neighborhood in Chicago where all these horrors and abuses were carried out, undoubtedly to the ignorance of those who would have shared my position just miles away.

My most immediate, gut reaction to this book is that the Lithuanian immigrant characters made a huge mistake when they left an area with arable land for an urban industrial existence, and that anyone who leaves farmable land for promises of wealth risks complete disempowerment and starvation. On another level, this book reflects my concerns in my consumer law practice and makes me wonder just how much individuals, businesses, and government entities still sanction and actively engage in the abuse of people with no recourse or understanding of their rights. Based on what we see of treatment of undocumented workers and what I see with lending practices, I would hazard a guess that we haven't come too far since the time of The Jungle.
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