Down and Out in Dutchland

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Book Review: Exiled in America

Sociologist Christopher P. Dum lived for a year in a residential motel, vaguely and anonymously located somewhere in upstate New York, observing and interacting with its residents to learn more about what brought them there and why they stay. That’s the basic premise. As an academic, he fits these individual stories and relationships into the broader picture of the marginalized in American society, how they’re viewed by their communities, and the obstacles that just always seem to be in the way of long term improvements of their situations.

Some of the characters that filter through his study and story are drug addicts, prostitutes, convicted pedophiles, and the general down-and-out of Anywhere, America. Many have just made a few bad decisions somewhere along the line and lacked the means or proper assistance to right their wrongs. Considering this, there’s a lot of difficult, sad reality of how people are living to digest here, even given the uneasy details of some residents’ back stories. I found his observations on the stories that people tell themselves in order to rationalize their situations and decisions insightful, but I felt that it was too strongly structured as if following textbook guidelines.

But this is an academic study, and unfortunately it often reads like a university report. For someone who obviously cares a lot about society’s marginalized, enough to immerse himself at least halfway in a seedy motel nicknamed around town for its population of pedophiles (he maintains his own private residence outside despite renting a room at the motel) it feels like a human aspect is missing from his storytelling. Even with his explanations of his own rules for interactions like loans, car rides, and drinking/smoking with his neighbors, it all comes across very clinical, without much emotional investment.

And despite many of the residents talking about themselves and their lives in their own words, it still seemed as if so much of them and their stories, which this purported to tell, was missing in favor of identifying and analyzing aspects of their actions with sociological principles. As a general reader, I was left somewhat cold in terms of an engaging, detailed narrative.

This should appeal very strongly to sociology students, especially those interested in academic analysis of this population.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Hotel
by Christopher P. Dum
Published September 6, 2016 by Columbia University Press

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