A Fever in the Heartland

A Fever in the Heartland

by Timothy Egan
Setting: Indiana
Genres: History / United States / 20th Century
Length: 10:39
Published on April 4, 2023
Pages: 432
Format: Audiobook Source: Library

A historical thriller by the Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning author that tells the riveting story of the Klan's rise to power in the 1920s, the cunning con man who drove that rise, and the woman who stopped them.

The Roaring Twenties--the Jazz Age--has been characterized as a time of Gatsby frivolity. But it was also the height of the uniquely American hate group, the Ku Klux Klan. Their domain was not the old Confederacy, but the Heartland and the West. They hated Blacks, Jews, Catholics and immigrants in equal measure, and took radical steps to keep these people from the American promise. And the man who set in motion their takeover of great swaths of America was a charismatic charlatan named D.C. Stephenson.

Stephenson was a magnetic presence whose life story changed with every telling. Within two years of his arrival in Indiana, he’d become the Grand Dragon of the state and the architect of the strategy that brought the group out of the shadows – their message endorsed from the pulpits of local churches, spread at family picnics and town celebrations. Judges, prosecutors, ministers, governors and senators across the country all proudly proclaimed their membership. But at the peak of his influence, it was a seemingly powerless woman – Madge Oberholtzer – who would reveal his secret cruelties, and whose deathbed testimony finally brought the Klan to their knees.

A FEVER IN THE HEARTLAND marries a propulsive drama to a powerful and page-turning reckoning with one of the darkest threads in American history.

I know that my maternal great-grandmother was in the Klan in western Pennsylvania. (Her daughter-in-law totally ratted her out to my aunt when my aunt had to do a school report. They didn’t like each other so I imagine my grandmother gladly telling my aunt about her mother-in-law’s sordid past.)

On the other side of my family my grandfather was an ardent racist and was the right age to be a Klan member in the 1920s. If he wasn’t, it would only be because he wasn’t keen on joining things- not that he would have disagreed with them.

So with that history I settled in to listen to a book on the Klan in the 1920s in the Midwest. The book is focused on Indiana but spread the focus out enough into Ohio and Pennsylvania that I had to keep cussing anytime I place I’ve lived came up. And that was often. Oh, my current liberal enclave in a red state had Klan members running the entire local government and school board? @$#%. A place down the road from my old clinic was the summer headquarters of the main bad guy? @#$#%$^!. Oh, harassment of Polish immigrants in Erie PA? Let’s wave at my grandma’s Polish family. She’s going to marry the racist grandpa in the 1940s.

I kept updating my mother on this book as I was listening. Because I’m a sensitive child I started the conversation with, “Been reading about your people….” On Thanksgiving when I mentioned discussion of burning crosses on lawns of Black people in Erie (a large percentage of the population), she dropped this little nugget of history. When my father’s school was on strike (in the 1970s!!!!) a cross was burned on the lawn of the school superintendent. I yelled, “Dad!!!” because he was a union bigwig. (Note that my immediate response was not that he would never do such a thing. He was raised by my grandfather.) Then she reminded me that this was early in his career so he wasn’t in charge at that time. He was ignoring me so I didn’t get an absolute denial of knowledge.

The other thing that was so horrific about this book was that if you changed the names it could be the story of MAGA now. A con man convinces white people that they need to be afraid. Other types of people are coming to get what they have rightfully stolen. They need to fight back. Trump fans are falling for the exact same stupid rhetoric 100 years later. It is maddening.

The downfall of D.C. Stephenson comes from his deranged lifestyle. He was a drunk while preaching the gospel of Prohibition. He was a sexual predator while upholding family values. I don’t use “sexual predator” lightly. He was maiming women and it is described in detail in the book so trigger warning if that is going to be too much for you. It is discussed in detail because a woman died after one of his assaults. His trial for her death was the beginning of the end for him and the focus of a lot of the book. Lots of people died at their hands but of course, the death of a white woman was a step too far for people.

This is probably the best book I read this year. I wish I could put it in the hands of all people, especially the ones who are falling for the same lies now.