I grew up in Wilmette, a moderately conservative suburb of Chicago. It was almost all white, mostly upper middle class, but with some regular middle class and a bunch of Asian or Jewish households for diversity. For the most part, I didn't see the raging, insane right-wing nutters. You know, the kind of place where people accepted that government was necessary, you had to pay at least some taxes, and abortion should be legal with some restrictions. What really intrigues me, then, about Wilmette is the library. The library was an important part of my early childhood. My mother brought me there all the time, not just to check out books, but also to participate in activities. As I got older and became more of a bookworm, I spent even more time there.
One of the books I checked out from this library changed my life. I don't remember what it was called, but it was some sort of young adult book about injustice in America, and the rise of labor and radical movements. The seminal chapter for me was on the Sacco and Vanzetti case from 1921. Basically, these were two Italian immigrant anarchists who were arrested for killing two people in a robbery gone bad in Braintree, MA. Every single thing about their trial - which led to their execution - was an example of ethnic and political hatred and fearmongering. As written in The Encyclopedia of the American Left:
The atmosphere in court was transfused with the nativist and reactionary sentiments still pervading American society in the wake of the Red Scare. District Attorney Katzmann was able, therefore, to try Sacco and Vanzetti not only for murder but, in effect, for being anarchists, atheists, foreigners, and draft dodgers. Judge Thayer, repeating his role as presiding magistrate, had no objection to Katzmann's interjecting such extraneous and inflammatory information, despite its prejudicial effect on the jury. Nor did he interfere with Katzmann's coaching and cajoling of prosecution witnesses to obtain descriptions of the shooting and of the perpetrators that were remarkably more detailed and incriminating than those they had provided to Pinkerton investigators more than a year earlier. With defense witnesses, especially Italians, Katzmann was patronizing and disdainful, implying that they were lying to defend their compatriots. Several witnesses whose testimony would have helped the defendants were never called to testify or brought to the attention of the defense. Katzmann's handling of the alleged murder weapons and ballistics evidence was likewise unethical. The prosecution's chief expert, Captain William Proctor of the state police, did not believe that Sacco's Colt .32-caliber automatic had fired the bullet that killed the guard. (The remaining five bullets taken from the two bodies could not have been fired from the guns found on Sacco and Vanzetti.) Nevertheless, by prearrangement with Katzmann, Proctor testified when asked about the bullet in question that "it is consistent with having been fired from that gun," meaning any Colt .32-caliber automatic, not Sacco's weapon. Katzmann also knew that the .38-caliber revolver found on Vanzetti at the time of his arrest could not have been taken from the slain guard, as the prosecution claimed. The guard's weapon was a .32-caliber revolver with a different serial number--evidence withheld from the defense. Katzmann's manipulation of evidence may even have included substituting a test bullet fired from Sacco's gun for the real fatal bullet.
... The weight of evidence--the weapons, ballistic tests, and eyewitness testimony--and the issue of consciousness of guilt (independently stressed by Judge Thayer in his instructions to the jury) as well as the prejudice Katzmann had evoked against the accused combined to ensure a guilty verdict on 14 July 1921.
A six-year struggle to save Sacco and Vanzetti followed the trial. Countless observers worldwide were convinced that political intolerance and racial bigotry had condemned two men whose only offense was that of being foreigners, atheists, and anarchists. Edmund Wilson, like many others, believed that the case "revealed the whole anatomy of American life, with all its classes, professions, and points of view and all their relations, and it raised almost every fundamental question of our political and social system." ... Sacco and Vanzetti defenders eventually included radicals, trade unionists, intellectuals, liberals, and even some conservatives, such as Boston lawyer William G. Thompson, who replaced Moore as chief defense counsel in 1924, and Harvard law professor and future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter. Arrayed against them were the upholders of traditional conservative values and institutions associated with patriotism, religion, and capitalism. They were intransigent in their belief that the American system of justice could do no wrong and that the two subversives were guilty as charged, had been fairly tried, and deserved the maximum penalty.
I believe I read this book when I was in fourth or sixth grade, and it made me realize that justice in America was not, never had been, and likely never will be, blind. It's kind of amazing that my library even had it. The people who live in that community are essentially the exact same people in the last line of the paragraph above.
Another oddity stocked in the YA section of my library was The Soothsayer's Handbook: A Guide to Bad Signs and Good Vibrations by Elinor Lander Horwitz. From this book, which I checked out many, many times, I learned to do basic Tarot Card readings, numerology, reading Rune stones, and some tips to improve my ESP capabilities. (From the Glenview Public Library in the neighboring town, I was able to get a book on handwriting analysis. I thought these to be very handy skills when I was a freshman in high school. The fact that my library had this occult-lite book blows my mind.
So, I offer a hearty thanks to the Wilmette Public Library. As an eccentric, curious youth, I found a place where I was welcome and could learn more. I am today an eccentric, curious adult with kooky behaviors and lefty beliefs, and I would not trade it for anything. I hope the library offerings today are as varied as they were in the 1980s and 1990s. It could make a big difference for a weird kid.