I’m a fan of Hampton Sides, if he writes it, I’m going to read it. (I’m currently reading Amercana: Dispatches from the New Frontier and loving it) I read this book at a challenging time which made it a very heavy read. Each day news reports would have stories of people shooting police officers and police officers shooting unarmed black men. Riots, violence, hatred, and don’t even get me started on the gut churning 2016 Presidential Election coverage. I’ve always been connected into what is happening in the world and while tragic events would make me feel somber, I could put them their compartment and live my life. Parenthood has changed my view on all matters. I feel that when I became a mother, a layer of skin was pealed away and external things affect me in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. When I read about the world from the relative safety of my own life, I hurt. I think about the mothers. These people are someone’s children, how can they hate so much? And then I think about my own children, and the type of world they will inherit, and the type of people I want them to be. There were times when the events on the news and Hellhound on His Trail really became too much and I had to just put it aside and find something lighthearted.
Hellhound on His Trail is more than just a story about a man, and the man who shot him, and the guys who hunted down the guy who shot him. It is a story about ideas, about who we are and how we present ourselves to the world. It is about fear, about re-invention, and what legacy will be left behind. Non-fiction can be challenging to authors because if you are writing about something well documented (like Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, for example) everyone already knows the facts. James Earl Ray shot Dr. King on April 4, 1968 and was arrested in London two months later. How to write about this event without just presenting a list of more facts? This is where Sides lives and excels. He has an ability to know where a story should be told. Not all writers, even good, published, respected writers know this. Sides presents you with a picture in perfect proportions. His book starts when prisoner 416-J escapes from prison a year before Dr. King’s assassination and heads to Mexico to re-invent himself as Eric Galt. It is during this time that the perhaps passive racist ideas he embraced in the past morphed, radicalized by George Wallace’s presidential run. Meanwhile, Dr. King’s great Civil Rights work was winding down. Due to infighting about the direction the movement should next take, Dr. King is disillusioned, frustrated, and a bit fatalistic. So much was written about King immediately after the assassination that Sides inevitably spent time separating fact from fiction. He presents a man with great ideas as well as great flaws. After Eric Galt carries out his assassination, he is on the run and the reader gets a detailed account of the measures taken apprehend him on his trek to get to South Africa.
This book is well written. The subject matter is depressing at times and mirrors events that we are beginning to see more and more often. I’d recommend this for many readers but also as a self examination exercise. What do our ideas say about who we are and who we will become? What kind of power do they have over us? Dr. King’s ideas clearly threatened those who didn’t agree. James Earl Ray’s ideas drove him to murder. I think truly great books ask difficult questions without giving away all the answers. They let us figure out the answers for ourselves.