Braden McElroy's Reviews > Rolling Pennies in the Dark: A Memoir with a Message

Rolling Pennies in the Dark by Douglas MacKinnon
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Mar 18, 2012

really liked it

My concern for MacKinnon’s Rolling Pennies in the Dark is that his powerful story will get lost because those who disagree with his resulting viewpoint will review it negatively...for primarily superficial reasons.

But first things first. As others have noted, the first half of the book covers Mr. MacKinnon’s childhood — though “childhood” is not an appropriate word because he never had the nurturing environment that allows one the freedom to indulge in being a child. For him, poverty was the consequence of a deeper, more challenging problem — the dysfunction caused by his messed-up parents. The collection of memories he recounts are the most powerful aspect of the book, and I don’t want to spoil your experience by relaying any of them. For me, it would have been worth it just to read this first half of his story.

I did have a few disappointments or lingering questions. Despite the hell of his early years, Mr. MacKinnon did not consider morality a luxury he couldn’t afford. To the contrary, he developed a strong faith in God. It fascinates me when someone experiences great pain but does not reject God because of it. I have my own perspective about that, but I wanted to hear more about his. Second, one might reasonably expect that someone who experienced what Mr. MacKinnon experienced would be more naturally drawn to the left side of the political spectrum, especially given that his much-loved grandparents and others of his extended family were strong supporters of the Kennedys. I would like to have heard more about how he got from that starting place to the unflinching strong (and controversial) viewpoints that resulted from his experience and which are shared at the end of the book. Thirdly, I was curious (maybe he is, too) about how he and his brother Jay survived their first years before they were big enough to help each other and their sister. Given their virtual abandonment for lengthy periods due to their parents’ alcoholism, it’s remarkable. Finally, I would like to have learned whether his siblings developed similar or divergent viewpoints…but I suppose those are not his stories to tell.

I think that Mr. MacKinnon does expose one flaw in his perspective. Several times he stratifies between those who share(d) his experience and—everybody else. I think the reality is that most people, even in the US, experience some degree of very real pain and trauma as children. Relatively few (at least in the US) are as extreme and as unrelenting as Mr. MacKinnon’s, but I think there is more empathy out there than he knows. I attribute his stratified view as being the product of seeing the lowest of lows and the highest of highs without measurable experience (or at least not chronicled experience) in the vast stretch in between. Does he think DC is any sort of true mirror of the US? I’ve worked there; it is not.

Be advised, this book hits some sacred cows right between the eyes. Our educational system, the media, the wealthy (especially politicians), affirmative action, the church — Mr. MacKinnon doesn’t dance around, and he doesn’t pull his punches. Even where I disagreed with him, I appreciated that he asked the questions...and I enjoyed his bluntness.

However, because he challenges these establishments, I think the heart of Mr. MacKinnon’s story will ultimately be lost by those who cannot look beyond their own intolerant political persuasions…and who will rate the book accordingly. Though he regularly applauds individuals on the liberal side of the spectrum and often criticizes those on his own side, at the end of the day he calls himself conservative and will therefore receive significant hate reviews from a small but vocal faction of the liberal left. On the other hand, since Mr. MacKinnon encourages a Christ-like response to poverty (to get right in the thick of it and provide useful help to those suffering from it), he will not get great support from the prevailing faction of conservatives that favor very limited government engagement with the issue.

For my part, I think our society owes our impoverished a hearing…and I think Mr. MacKinnon's experience makes him a credible and able spokesperson. Four strong stars.
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