A Long December - Donald Harstad As you know, I am a big fan of Donald Harstad. This book is of even more interest because it takes place in the fictional town of Battenberg, clearly patterned after Postville, Iowa, not far from where I live in NW, Illinois. Postville was the subject of two very interesting books about the economic rise and downfall of a town that became a microcosm of problems wit immigration in the United States.

Prior to 1987 the town had been mostly German and Norwegian, basically your standard homogeneous farming community in the Midwest. It was in slow decline as are most towns in this area. Then a group of Hasidim Jews from New York purchased an old meat-packing plant, fixed it up and made it kosher. They were soon shipping kosher meat all over the United States, the plant became the largest of its kind in the world, and the community began to thrive, but was accompanied by the usual discomfiture of many Spanish-speaking (not Mexican Spanish, but Honduran and Guatemalan Spanish which made it difficult for the police to learn the language aside from financial issues,) workers mixing with the more staid farmers. In addition there were the religious differences. All well and good and Stephen Bloom wrote a book which became a Frontline TV special about how diversity was working in a small Iowa community. The town began to thrive.

Then in 2008 the black-shirted Sicherheitsdienst, otherwise known as the INS and ICE, raided the factory, locked up many of the workers, placed their children, most of whom had been born in the United States, in foster care, and arrested the manager of the plant. It has since been shut down and the community has begun a slow descent back into decline.

This then forms the backdrop for Harstad’s book which was written in 2003, before the shutdown of the plant, when many illegal immigrants were being imported into the community to staff the plant.

A couple of farmers witness the shooting of a fleeing man on a gravel road near their farm. Then another man is found dead in an apartment. Their only link seems to be the kosher meat-packing plant in near by Battenberg. Then they discover the dead man did not die of natural causes, but had ingested ricin. Soon the county becomes a busy place indeed. “There were people representing the FBI, DOJ, CDC, FDA, DEA, ATF, OSHA, as well as the EMD. I felt like I was watching CNN.”

A recurrent theme in Harstad’s books is the respect he has for local law enforcement and disdain for the inter-agency bickering and power-pissing contests that hinder the local focus on a crime. The federal agencies do have the resources, however, so cooperation is always essential if not required.

The plot is the least important element in Harstad’s books. The recurring characters, Sally, Carl, Hester. Lamar, and peripherally Volont, and George, become so real and likeable, that the reader wishes he could meet them all over dinner somewhere just to watch the often comic interplay among them.

Books referenced:

Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America
Postville: USA: Surviving Diversity in Small-Town America