Book Review: The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America by Mike McIntyrePosted: December 18, 2012
This book from 1994 is based on one central question, has kindness and helping others become a thing of the past? McIntyre sets out to see just how kind Americans are by hitchhiking coast-to-coast without any money at all. Transport, food and lodgings must all be provided by the people he meets or he’ll have to go without.
McIntyre starts off the book having made his decision having seen a hitchhiker that everybody passed, himself included, he’s aware of the reasons not to stop for a stranger especially in America which he describes as “Land of the free and home of the serial killer“. But it wasn’t always this way, in the 50s, 60s and even 70s hitchhicking was pretty common and a way of getting around. McIntyre notes that times have changed as has the attitude towards stopping:
There was a time in this country when you were a jerk if you passed somebody in need. Now you’re a fool for helping. Gangs, drugs, murderers, rapists, thieves, carjackers. Why risk it? I Don’t Want to Get Involved has become a national motto.
But as the journey unfolds it becomes clear that it cuts both ways, people pass McIntyre because they’re suspicious but there are points on his journey when he’s equally distrustful of those who stop.
This never completely leaves him, but as someone who confesses to being riddled with fears McIntyre does become braver, realizing that he can handle more than he thought and coming to realize that even in the cynical 90s Blanche DuBois might have been okay. His instincts get better as the trip goes on and he adapts, camping outdoors and scavenging up grub when need be.
It’s a fascinating snapshot of American life and the quiet, unheralded heroes who exist in everyday life. Human decency appears to be alive and well, and while there are tense moments and countless obscene gestures from passing cars, McIntyre never has to wait too long for somebody who’ll give him a ride a few miles down the road, something to eat or a place to crash.
One of the surprising things about this book is that quite a lot of the people who help him out along the way are pretty damaged, they’ve got issues and dark pasts, but yet they show massive capacity for forgiveness trust and generosity. There are people who have been conned, abused and betrayed and yet they still extend a hand to help others where they could have withdrawn completely.
And they come from all walks of life, from religious leaders and farmers through to a bizarre married couple made up of a hooker and a drug dealer.
These strangers have their own stories, several of them quite fascinating and it makes you want to go out and start chatting to strangers to find out what characters are out there. And it’s increased my desire to see the States, although I doubt I’d hitchhike. I might look for the good in people, but I’ve seen far too many horror movies for that.
It’s well written which you’d expect from a journalist, and McIntyre gets the tone right, capturing the change he undergoes without allowing it to become cheesy. He emerges at the end a more outgoing and optimistic person. He writes with a subtle, quiet sense of humour and lovely honesty. It’s a highly entertaining book and has a real feel good vibe to it.
Verdict: A well written and engaging travel book, based on a brilliant idea and a brave concept. McIntyre is a good narrator and his regular Joe personality makes it easy to relate to. It’s sure to restore your faith in mankind and maybe inspire some itchy feet. 8/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.