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“Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History”

By Bill Schutt

c. 2017, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

$26.95, $39.95 Canada; 352 pages

You’ve got a packed schedule. Extra meetings, vacation planning, guests arriving, errands, it’s a lot to do but one thing’s for certain: you’ll find time to have a good meal. Gotta keep your strength up because there’s a lot on your plate this week, but read the new book “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History” by Bill Schutt, and you know what won’t be there.

Ever since you learned about what happens to him, you’ve always been thankful you’re not a male praying mantis. He’s the guy who literally loses his head over mating which, admit it, has “the ick factor” we can’t turn away from.

But why? Even though it’s straight-up disgusting, why are we so “utterly fascinated” by cannibalism?

It’s not like it doesn’t happen all over in the animal kingdom: tadpoles, as Schutt learned, cannibalize their smaller brethren for the nutrition of it all. Tiger shark embryos do it in-utero. Hamsters will eat their young, if they’re stressed or crowded; chimps and lions do it to eliminate the competition’s offspring. A surprising amount of creatures eat their own species because they don’t seem to recognize the fact that they’re related, which must make family reunions very interesting.

Even so, says Schutt, it makes sense: first, there’s the little issue of food, and if it’s in short supply, a reduction in the population of the young of the species in favor of the health of the reproducing ones seems like a right move. Reproductive benefits, territorial issues, space to live, all good enough reasons.

But what about us?

Scientists are divided on whether or not prehistoric humans practiced cannibalism, but we know it happened in recorded history. Human parts were eaten by the victors of war, partly as an in-your-face move. Columbus claimed the “Caribs” ate human flesh (which may have been a “tall tale”). It supposedly happened during World War II, the Donner party infamously ate others (or didn’t), zombies do it, and so did Ed Gein.

And, says Schutt, cannibalism “is also being practiced today here in the United States.”

So you’re ready for different reading material this weekend. You want something with meat, something you can really sink your teeth into. “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History” might just be it.

But don’t be grossed-out: yes, there’s plenty of “ick factor” in this book, but author and zoologist Bill Schutt adds laugh-out-loud humor to lighten things up, putting a different spin on a rarely-discussed disgust while still taking it as seriously as it deserves. Indeed, Schutt follows his topic with respect, a scientists’ curiosity, and a willingness to (gulp!) participate in the research without making a reader nauseous. That means that you’ll learn here, and you’ll be very entertained, but you won’t be scandalized with unnecessary sensationalism.

For sure, this wonderful book will speak to the science-minded, to folks who like history, or to anyone who’s crazy-curious about taboo subjects like this. You might not find dinner-table small-talk inside “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History,” but it’s not just another thing on your plate, either.

“Never Caught”

By Erica Armstrong Dunbar

c. 2017, Atria  

 $26, $35 Canada; 254 pages

Run, run, run. Some days, it feels like that’s all you do. Run the kids to school, dash to work, rush with errands, and run yourself ragged before bed. You’re always on the go, always moving, and in the new book “Never Caught” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, your breath isn’t the only thing to catch.

Twenty-one-year-old Mulatto Betty must’ve breathed a sigh of relief.

When Martha Custis married George Washington, slaves were shuffled as the mistress moved to Mount Vernon; miraculously and notably, Betty moved and was allowed to keep her baby son with her. She was pregnant, too, by a white man with an “indenture agreement” and an eye for opportunity; their eldest daughter was born in mid-1773, and given the unusual name of Ona Maria.

At age 10, “Oney” Judge was brought inside the Washington household, in service to Martha Washington. There, the illiterate girl learned to care for Martha’s clothing, to bathe the mistress, tend her grandchildren, and soothe anxieties – one of which was that Martha’s husband had been asked to be the nation’s first president, a post that Martha Washington wasn’t keen on – and neither was Judge.

But, of course, Washington did take the position, which meant a household move from  Virginia  to  Manhattan  (the site of the first  executive mansion) for the family and a handful of slaves, including Judge. It’s there, says Dunbar, where Judge most certainly tasted freedom through rare autonomy.

She was undoubtedly unhappy, therefore – but couldn’t speak her mind – when the executive mansion was relocated to Philadelphia in 1790. But there was a twist, for Judge and for the Washingtons: laws in Pennsylvania mandated freedom for any slave living in the state for six continuous months, meaning that the Washingtons would shuttle their slaves between Philadelphia and Virginia, to “reset” their status. Judge surely knew what was going on, but when she learned that she would be permanently gifted as a wedding present to Martha’s moody granddaughter, she could stand things no longer.

And so, as the Washingtons dined on a Saturday evening in May, 1796, Oney Judge slipped out the door and ran …

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a thriller as heart-pounding as the one I found in this book. The difference is that “Never Caught” is all true.

But Judge’s astounding, audacious story isn’t the only thing author Erica Armstrong Dunbar brings to vivid life: she also sets the tone by explaining the times in which Judge lived, and what life was like for slaves and whites alike. Thanks to Dunbar, it’s easy to feel the busyness of Manhattan, to absorb the fear Judge surely felt, and to picture the elegant drawing rooms of the Washington home. On that note, we learn some not-so-savory things about George Washington, which makes the meat of this story an even bigger reason for gleefulness.

Now you have to find out what happened. If you love biographies, history, stories about remarkable women, or really exciting thrillers, “Never Caught” you need to read this book. Run for it.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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