When Suzanne DeGaetano suggests a book for you to read, it’s wise to pay attention. Suzanne is the owner / manager of Mac’s Backs, the superb bookstore on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights. We buy all our books there, and have for a long time. Suzanne knows what we like to read, and she sure knows books.
So when she told my wife I really needed to read “Trying Times” by Terry Gilbert, with Carlo Wolff, we snapped it up. Recently, I had polished off politically oriented books by brilliant people like Barack Obama, Heather Cox Richardson, Robert Reich and Eddie Glaude, Jr., so I was intrigued when Suzanne suggested a book with the subtitle “A Lawyer’s 50-Year Struggle Fighting for Rights in a World of Wrongs” by a couple of renowned local guys.
My curiosity was well satisfied. Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Wolff have delivered a stunningly well-written, fascinating and compelling history of Mr. Gilbert’s life and law practice that is as impressive as any of the books I routinely read authored by the most learned celebrity names on the national political stage.
I’m not a fast reader, but I quickly devoured this book. It’s that interesting, and not just because Mr. Gilbert is a local hero with a national reputation in the fight for human and civil rights through the court system. The book is engaging for the more global example it provides to all of us to make a difference in the struggle between the light and the dark, between the morally right and the reprehensibly wrong.
The book takes a standard biographical tack, and Terry Gilbert’s upbringing on Cleveland’s east side and his education at Miami University and the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law lay the basis for the career he pursues as an activist attorney advocating for the civil liberties and rights of the underrepresented in our society. His political sensibilities are formed by events of the early seventies: the protests and tragedies at Kent State, Attica State Prison and the Wounded Knee Reservation, by way of example.
The authors walk us through Gilbert’s brilliant legal career as an advocate for the downtrodden and underclass and delve deeply into his unsuccessful effort to exonerate Dr. Sam Shepherd of the grisly murder of his wife years after his death, while exploring Mr. Gilbert’s root motivation to hold civil authorities accountable for their actions and defend the freedoms and protections provided to all of our citizens.
While Gilbert and Wolff do explore convoluted legal processes, they never degenerate into the often mind-numbingly esoteric jargon of the practice, and when they do need to explain terms of the art, they do so in a manner readily accessible to lay people.
The last chapter alone is worth the price of the book itself, and you’ll probably want to read it twice, as I did, as the authors make it crystal clear what is presently at risk in the United States as authoritarian forces seek to undermine the rule of law, voting rights and the basic freedoms guaranteed to us all by the Bill of Rights. The attack on democracy today is frighteningly stark, as is an equally frightening and growing bias to fascist, xenophobic and racist thinking.
“Trying Times” did for me what I hoped it would do and met my expectations of what I feel erudite books with a political and social activism basis should accomplish. I came away from the book energized with the question, “Okay, now what do I do with this?”
My immediate response was to send donations to the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Terry Gilbert is fundamentally an activist…an intensely patriot one, and his book will doubtless energize patriotic action on the part of his readers, as it has inspired and reenergized my personal activism.
I have never met Terry Gilbert, and it’s a little surprising we never crossed paths as we frequented much of the same terrain, restaurants and musical haunts for almost half a century, but when I finished reading his life story I wrote him a thank-you email, as I do with books I enjoy this much.
I don’t get that many responses, but I did get a response from Mr. Gilbert, the day after I sent my email. He thanked me for my high praise of his book, and he even complimented me on the essays he had taken the time to look at on my blog. That’s not surprising to me, though. It’s pretty clear that’s the kind of guy Terry Gilbert is.
Right now, we all need to be as hyper-committed to activism, civil rights and progressive social change as Terry Gilbert has been for his fascinating life and career.
Because there is an awful lot at stake.