Nonfiction Short Take: The Boys int he Bunkhouse – Dan Barry

Barry won the top prize in the 2015 Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest for his New York Times reporting on this astonishing true story of 32 mentally disabled men who labored for decades in a turkey-processing plant as veritable slaves. It’s also about the local social worker, journalist and attorney who worked to free the men.

In 1966 “the boys” were put into a pilot program at a Texas ranch, supposedly to teach them basic agricultural skills. It was a win for the rancher who got free labor and a win for the State of Texas which saved money on their care. But the training didn’t happen and the labor dragged on for years. One social worker called it ‘a human rights horror” while most of the rest of society turned a blind eye. As Kirkus noted in its starred review, it’s a “gripping indictment of society’s treatment of ‘losers.’”

 [A] moving tale of how a group of 32 mentally disabled men from Texas were rescued in 2009 after decades of servitude. Through a state program, the men were first put to work in the 1960s at a turkey processing plant in Texas. Then, in 1974, they were moved to another plant in Atalissa, Iowa. There, they lived in an abandoned schoolhouse and eviscerated turkeys in return for room, board, and (low) wages… neglected and abused….Their stories, pieced together through extensive research and interviews, are both riveting and often difficult to read, though Barry tries to end on a positive note. Still, his descriptions of overdue reunions and the list recounting ‘where they are now’ is a bleak testament to what happened to 32 men over decades of neglect.”
Publishers Weekly

The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland (9780062372130) by Dan Barry. $26.99 hardcover. 5/17/16 on sale.

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