One of the nation’s finest historians, Studs Terkel has told the story of twentieth-century America through the voices of ordinary people. His books have captured the texture of his subjects’ speech while illuminating their experiences of the crises and issues that have defined our times, from work and race to the Great Depression and World War II. In his last book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, Terkel took on a more intimate topic, that of death and aging, and his latest effort, Hope Dies Last, powerfully fuses the personal and the political. Sustaining hope in dark times isn’t easy, and sometimes downright impossible. Terkel’s definitely hopeful book–a collection of stories about good people weathering bad times–could hardly be more welcome, or more necessary.
As in all of Terkel’s books, the yearnings for social justice and a more humane world are at the heart of Hope Dies Last, which covers a century of struggle, from the early twentieth century to the present. In the book’s opening piece, Representative Dennis Kucinich–a Nation contributor and potential candidate for President–explains how his desire to act, to make things happen, sustained his hope through some bruising electoral defeats and, ultimately, some stunning victories. “I had a sense of a connection to my constituency and a sense of purpose in my life. I was separated from that for a long time,” he explains. “But it was that calling that kept me moving, trying to re-create possibilities from nothing.”
Elsewhere, we hear the stories of folks who survived the Depression and had their hope restored by the government, through the WPA. Victor Reuther regained his faith that things can get better by organizing workers. Tom Geoghegan became a lawyer to “fight for the people with their back against the wall.”
“It’s a long haul. It’s step by step,” Terkel notes in his introduction. Still, “As Mahalia Jackson sang out, ‘We’re on our way’–not to Canaan Land, perhaps, but to the world as a better place than it has been before.”