During his 21-year career as a reporter and columnist at The New York Times, Dan Barry has crisscrossed America to explore the spectrum of the human experience, taking readers to the hidden places of this country, finding heartbreak, joy and great wonder.
Readers of Barry’s forthcoming book, “The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland,” will discover all three in this work of narrative non-fiction that has been chosen as St. Bonaventure University’s common read for the 2016-17 academic year. Barry is a 1980 graduate of St. Bonaventure and this will mark the first time since the All Bonaventure Reads initiative was introduced in 2006 that a book by an alumnus has been selected.
“Dan is a storyteller, and ‘Bunkhouse’ reads like a novel while being non-fiction. I was fascinated by each page’s unravel of this tale of treatment of those with mental disabilities,” said Jean Trevarton Ehman, chair of the All Bonaventure Reads Committee.
“The Boys in the Bunkhouse,” which will be released by HarperCollins May 17, tells the story of dozens of men with intellectual disability who endured decades of exploitation — living in an old schoolhouse and working at an Iowa turkey-processing plant for little pay — before finding justice and freedom.
In the winter of 2009, Natalie Neel-McGlaughlin, a social worker with the Iowa Department of Human Services, received an anonymous tip:
A couple dozen disabled men. All from Texas. Living in an old, boarded-up schoolhouse in the farm town of Atalissa. For decades. Working in a meat-processing plant, eviscerating turkeys. For decades. Financially exploited. For decades.
She wasn’t the first Iowa state social worker to investigate the plant; in fact, a social worker had filed a report filled with outrage on the same case in 1974. And yet what Neel-McGlaughlin found in that Atalissa bunkhouse was much the same as it had been almost 35 years earlier.
In a work of hauntingly detailed reportage, Barry explains how and why these 32 men came to live in the schoolhouse, woefully underpaid, physically and emotionally abused, and nearly forgotten for so many years. He 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 to push for just pay and improved working conditions for people living with disabilities.
“I am excited to continue exploring themes of human dignity and respect for creation in this year’s All Bonaventure Reads selection,” said Chris Brown, director of the university’s First-Year Experience program. “When discussing themes of social justice, the topic of ability is often forgotten. ‘Bunkhouse’ reminds us of significant shortfalls in attaining equitable treatment of persons with disabilities.”
First-year students will receive copies of “Bunkhouse” during orientation in July and are asked to read the book prior to the start of the fall semester. Students are engaged in conversations about the book’s themes in their University 101 course and various campuswide events during the upcoming academic year. The university traditionally hosts the All Bonaventure Reads author for a keynote address during the fall semester.
“As a keynote FYE speaker, I think Dan would speak to the freshmen on their level, having — 40 years ago this fall — worn their new-student shoes,” said Trevarton Ehman.
In addition to highlighting the issues faced by the workers, “Bunkhouse” underscores concerns about our food supply chain. Before dawn each morning, the men were bused to a nearby processing plant, where they eviscerated turkeys in return for food, lodging, and $65 a month.
“In programming related to the book, we will be able to examine where our food comes from, who produces it, and the various challenges in the modern food industry,” added Brown. “We have a special opportunity to partner with organizations like nearby Canticle Farm — sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany — to learn how the care for creation, responsible farming, and respect for human dignity are linked.”
Providing our students with an education rich in compassion, community and service is part of the Franciscan experience at St. Bonaventure, and hallmark traits of our graduates, said Trevarton Ehman.
“Dan Barry’s powerful reporting on the men from Atalissa is journalism at its best, serving as a conduit for the voiceless,” she said.
Barry has lectured at universities around the country, including frequently at St. Bonaventure, and will return to his alma mater in May to deliver the Commencement address to the Class of 2016.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from St. Bonaventure and is the author of three other books, a memoir, a collection of columns, and “Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game,” which won the 2012 PEN/ESPN award for literary sports writing.
He previously worked for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn., and for The Providence Journal, where he was part of an investigative team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for a series of articles about Rhode Island’s court system.
Barry has also been a nominated finalist for the Pulitzer Prize twice: in 2006 for his slice-of-life reports from hurricane-battered New Orleans and from New York, and in 2010 for his coverage of the Great Recession’s effects on the lives and relationships of America.
Barry lives in Maplewood, N.J., with his wife, Mary Trinity, a 1981 alumna of St. Bonaventure, and daughters, Nora and Grace.
Campus programming will be announced at www.sbu.edu/ABR as events are confirmed.
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