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The Big Truck That Went By

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Pasadena Book Babes: (back row, L-R) Kathy Feely and Carole Lincoln; (3rd row, L-R) Kathy Symons, Vicki Laidig, and Robbin Stafford; (2nd row, L-R) Rosey Bell, Dee Moorhead, and Judy Taylor; (front row, L-R) Betsy Weaver, author Jonathan Katz, and Charlotte Streng

When the title of Chapter One is “The End,” you know this non-fiction work is going to be heavy-duty. It also turns out to be much more than that.

Here is Hometown Pasadena’s first installment of a book review by a local book club.

For this occasion—wonderfully, but atypically—the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, Jonathan Katz was on hand. He is also engaged to one of the book club member’s niece and as such, Book Babes member and local realtor Rosey Bell was host for the evening, with her niece Claire Payton and Katz the evening’s main event.

As the hours swiftly passed, it became apparent that this book club meeting would be more of an author’s event and a discussion of Haiti, the earthquake on January 12, 2010, and the attempts and failures to aid in the aftermath. So in the days following, Book Babes members have kindly emailed HP with their impressions and opinions.

Vicki Laidig: I think The Big Truck That Went By is a significant read on several different levels. It addressed timely issues about the humanitarian efforts and the politics in Haiti while providing a succinct political and cultural history of the country.

This book presented a compelling study of the devastation caused by the January 12, 2010 earthquake, the impact global humanitarian efforts had on the country, and how Haiti is not better off today. Jonathan Katz takes the UN to task for the worst outbreak of cholera in recent history, investigates the lack of humanitarian funding that actually reached Haiti, and explores the questionable roles that various NGOs and celebrities played in decision-making.

Katz’s personal experiences further enhanced the book. I appreciated his reporting on the human side of this experiences and how he showed his vulnerability; his compassion for the Haitian people, his concerns for his own PTSD, and the unfolding of his love story with a young Pasadena woman who he met in Haiti.

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Kathy Feely: The great thing about belonging to a book club is that you get to read books that you would never have chosen on your own. Such is the case with Jonathan Katz’s The Big Truck That Went By. Haiti has always been the great unknown to me; I’ve read articles and learned a bit, but have not absorbed much information about the country. That was until I read Mr. Katz’s book. He did an excellent job describing the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, but just as importantly, I felt he did an outstanding job explaining the country’s very complex political situation—both now and in the past. In Haiti, it is not a simple case of the “good guys” and the “bad guys”; the blame for the country’s problems reach far and wide. I enjoyed learning more about this complicated country and look forward to hearing more from Mr. Katz in the future.

Robin Stafford: I read Jonathan Katz’s book and found it very detailed and gripping. He gave excellent background into the history of Haiti, and the U.S. involvement as well. This is a book I would never have read if it wasn’t on our book club list, and it was an eye opener. I like the way Jonathan brought in his personal experiences, too. He showed the complexity of being in a poor country in a disaster with a deluge of “help” arriving from all over the world. Jonathan sorted things out with good back-and-forth, from the present to the very intricate past.

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Charlotte Streng: I was awed by the whole book and especially the discussion about cholera (currently, there is an outbreak that could become an epidemic). My husband is an infectious disease specialist and concurred that it was probably brought into Haiti via the Nepalese workers.

Carole Lincoln: I feel Jonathan Katz took us on an incredible journey to Haiti. Through him, I felt I experienced the earthquake firsthand—the disaster, the devastation, and the confusion; even his trip down from the second floor (of the Associated Press house where he lived) to ground floor level.

Living in Haiti, Katz was familiar with the country, the politics, and the people. He did not just arrive on the scene to cover the earthquake; he was there, lived it, and lived to tell about it.

I’m amazed to know about how people come together to help one another out in times of disaster, such as 911 or Kosovo—and (receiving) aid from so many countries in such a short period of time. I would never have known so much about Haiti if it wasn’t for Katz’s chronicled compilation and detail of the events. I am so glad this book was chosen for us “Babes.”

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AP Correspondent to Haiti Jonathan Katz (left) with AP “fixer” extraordinaire Evens Sanon (center) with Haitian President Renèe Prèval (right); photo by Javier Galeano/AP

Judy Taylor: I found The Big Truck That Went By to be a well written, compelling story. The author’s firsthand accounts of the devastating earthquake and its grim aftermath bring to life the horror, pain, and confusion of the local populace and the foreigners there to help. And his exposure of the cholera epidemic brought to Haiti (and now to the larger island of Hispanola) by the UN occupying force is as gripping as it is upsetting.

Although he dwells too long on the details of the confusion caused in part by the poorly directed goodwill of the world community, he brings to light the difficulties inherent in rushing aid to a third world country. We would do well to learn from Haiti’s experience and apply the lessons of centrally-directed and administered aid to the world’s response the next time a similar natural disaster strikes.

I would like to hear more of a discussion of “the next time.”

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Rosey Bell: While the subject matter is disturbing and upsetting, I found the book to be highly readable, and written with a voice sometimes a bit irreverent, but that is Jonathan’s voice. He was the only full-time reporter on the ground when the Haitian earthquake hit and he was responsible for getting the news out to the world. He had tough decisions to make about his responsibilities—rescue and aid versus reporting being the initial, and extremely difficult, decision he had to make.

Over the next two years, he had the opportunity to witness firsthand the generosity of the world, but the question he asks—and somewhat answers—is, where did it go? Because hardly any of the committed and donated monies ended up in Haiti.

This book is his account of the failings of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations), the government in Haiti, and the UN workers.

I highly recommend this book. Though it could be a bit scholarly and dry to some, Jonathan Katz offers up some personal information and shares his feelings, especially as he falls in love against this calamitous backdrop.

Editor’s Note: To all the Book Babes: it was a pleasure to meet you and be able to chat with some of you. Thank you for welcoming Hometown Pasadena into your group and for participating in HP’s first book club book review experiment.

An extra thank you to Rosey Bell for an absolutely delicious buffet meal in her lovely home.

Finally, many thanks to Jonathan Katz for his generosity of time, approachability, level of knowledge, and his degree of passion in regard to Haiti, then and now.

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1 Response for “The Big Truck That Went By”

  1. Max Etienne says:

    Dear author,

    Thank you very much for taking up a so delicate and- at the same time- vital topic. I am originally from Haiti and have been living in the United States for quite a while. In a few words, having been on “both sides of the fences” puts me in a vantage situation to make the following comments about:

    - The book and his author
    - The relationship between the U.S. and Haiti
    - Why the book’s Epilogue is its most important chapter?
    - A very subjective conclusion

    In the economy of time, I’ll go over the first theme leaving the three other ones for a later date. I hope that you won’t find it difficult to understand my written English and that, by trying to do so, you won’t feel offended by the truth that I am trying to convey to those who will be reading those comments. At times, someone has to tell things the way they are. After reading carefully, at least, fifty different books, thousands of newspapers and magazines articles written by an army of authors (including Mr. Jose Samarago’s “Una balsa de Piedra Camino de Haiti” “Porque tenemos una obligacion”- a Spanish translation of the original “A Jangada de Pedra” in Portuguese) After listening to or going over a heartfelt request made by a January 12th, 2010 Haiti’s survivor … I am willing to take that chance…

    “The Big Truck That Went By, How The Work Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster” has been one of the most original and well documented books ever written about Haiti in the last thirty years. Although it is a “first person” description of the event where Mr. Jonathan M. Katz has been, at the same time, an unfortunate victim and an independent reporter- maybe because of those reasons- it is a book borne out of courage, written with details and deep concerns toward what lays ahead that very few authors have felt the necessity to show so far. He is one of the very rare writers who has taken the time to look into Haiti’s (or Ayti) origins and shows a relative respect for a nation of people which had- ironically- helped almost half of the countries of this continent reaching the level of peace and prosperity that they have been enjoying for the last two hundred forty years. At the opposite of many learned writers in that field, Mr. Katz has never belittled Haitians, neither has he done so to their national heroes, traditions, cultures and their apparent poverty. He has been the first in many other aspects: the first to pinpoint that the translators or interpreters have been “over translating Haitian Kreol” for years. He has been the first to say that Haiti has had a working traditional “economy”, and the “pauperism” associated with Haiti and people of Haitian origins considerably fluctuates depending on the indicators by which it is measured. Finally, he has been the first one- in insight-that brings into our sense the dichotomy between visiting Haiti and being able to leave when things are getting out of hands and the fact that most Haitians don’t have what could called “that privilege”.

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