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Tightrope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn


by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

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Quick take

An honest discussion of the problems plaguing small-town America and the policies that lead those areas to spiral.

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With stark poignancy and political dispassion, Tightrope draws us deep into an "other America." The authors tell this story, in part, through the lives of some of the children with whom Kristof grew up, in rural Yamhill, Oregon, an area that prospered for much of the twentieth century but has been devastated in the last few decades as blue-collar jobs disappeared. About one-quarter of the children on Kristof's old school bus died in adulthood from drugs, alcohol, suicide, or reckless accidents. And while these particular stories unfolded in one corner of the country, they are representative of many places the authors write about, ranging from the Dakotas and Oklahoma to New York and Virginia. But here too are stories about resurgence, among them: Annette Dove, who has devoted her life to helping the teenagers of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, as they navigate the chaotic reality of growing up poor; Daniel McDowell, of Baltimore, whose tale of opioid addiction and recovery suggests that there are viable ways to solve our nation's drug epidemic. These accounts, illustrated with searing images by Lynsey Addario, the award-winning photographer, provide a picture of working-class families needlessly but profoundly damaged as a result of decades of policy mistakes. With their superb, nuanced reportage, Kristof and WuDunn have given us a book that is both riveting and impossible to ignore.

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Content warning

Numerous facts/figures/uses of historical and/or policy data make this book a challenging read.

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Get an early look from the first pages of Tightrope.


The Kids on the Number 6 School Bus

Is this land made for you and me? —Woody Guthrie

Dee Knapp was asleep when her husband, Gary, stumbled drunkenly into their white frame house after a night out drinking. Bracing for trouble, Dee jumped up and ran to the kitchen. Gary, muscular and compact with short black hair above a long face, was a decent fellow when sober, a brute when drunk.

“Get me dinner!” he shouted as he wobbled toward the kitchen, and Dee scrambled to turn the electric stove on and throw leftovers into a pan. But she wasn’t fast enough, and he hit her with his fist. A lithe brunette in her early thirties, with shoulder-length hair and calloused hands, Dee realized that this was one of those times she was destined to be a punching bag. Devoted to her five children, she especially hated to be beaten by Gary because of the loathing for their father this engendered in them.

“Dinner!” Gary roared again. “Get me dinner!” He grabbed his loaded .22 rifle and pointed it at her menacingly. She bolted past Gary and out the front door into the night.

Gary’s shouting had awoken the children upstairs. “Mom,” Farlan, her eldest son, hissed from the second-floor window as she ran around the side of the house. Dee looked up and he threw down a sleeping bag. She grabbed it in midair and ran into the protective darkness of their two-and-a-half-acre property, seeking a place to spend the night hiding in the tall grass, waiting for Gary to sleep off his rage.

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Why I love it

In a country that purports to root for the underdog, too often we exalt the rich and we punish the poor. This is an unflinching book that illustrates that central, confounding American paradox. With thorough reporting and extraordinary compassion, Kristof and WuDunn tell the stories of those who fall behind in the world’s wealthiest country. In the most vulnerable regions, they find not an efficient first-world safety net created by their government, but merely a patchwork of community initiatives, perpetually underfunded and run by tired saints. It’s not enough, and those who fall through the cracks fall precipitously.

Kristof and WuDunn focus on Yarnhill, Oregon, a blue-collar town where Kristof grew up. Though he got out and rose up, too many of his classmates succumbed to the opioid scourge—driven entirely by Big Pharma greed—or fell behind on medical payments that left them broke and broken. Common to all the stories is the resilience of these families in the face of system that can be indifferent at best and punitive at worst.

And yet amid all the tragedy and neglect, Kristof and WuDunn conjure a picture of how it could all get better, how it could all work. That’s the miracle of Tightrope, and why this is such an indispensable book. In concise, lucid chapters, we see humanity at its most desperate, its most rugged, but perhaps its most heroic. A reader comes away from Tightrope full of outrage but not without hope.

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Member ratings (3,195)

  • Heather L.

    Lakewood, CO

    I don't often give ☆☆☆☆☆ to nonfictions because I'm impossible to please but this was well researched, interwoven with personal stories, and offered practical, optimistic solutions. Required reading.

  • Ilina K.

    Topeka, KS

    Fascinating look into poverty and it’s contributing factors, with a focus on America’s small towns. I loved it! I wish BOTM would do more striking investigative literature like this! Highly recommend!

  • Taylor W.

    Madison, WI

    This book is such an important read in 2020. It is achingly sad to put faces and lives to these statistics, but that’s what’s necessary. I appreciate the hope and their concrete steps to enact change.

  • Isaac W.

    West Hollywood, CA

    Everyone should read this book! Its incisive and emotional. It’s spiritually connected to Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and America and Americans. Beautifully written and gives a lot to think about

  • Alethea R.

    Brooklyn, NY

    Excellent nuanced look at what’s happened in the US as wages have stagnated, social safety nets have been gutted and jobs have disappeared. Very intense subject matter, but written with a hopeful tone

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