Book News

Saying “Yes” to Saving Wonder by Mary Knight

Reviewed by Cynthia Ellis

What is the correct term for books for early teens these days?  Young adult?  Surely not Juvenile?

Whatever it is, this is one.  And a pretty good one.

Saving Wonder is the debut novel of Mary Knight.  She’s not from Appalachia.  But she gets it right.  Without patronizing or condescending, she gets it right. 

She understands and aptly describes mountains and the people and communities there.  She recognizes how someone could love a tree…and a mountain. 

She obviously loves words.  Without pedantry, she makes word study a clever theme in the plot and wows us with her descriptions of places that could be familiar to us. 

She also works in the appearance of “I   Mountains” bumper stickers! Twice!

The main figure in Saving Wonder is Michael “Curley” Hines.  His daddy died in a coal mine; his mother and baby brother died as coal sludge swept down a mountain.  Curley lives with his Papaw, who sustains and challenges him.  Also central to the story is a friend-who-is-a-girl, Jules [Julia].  Curley must navigate his changing feelings, a new kid in town [son of the mine company boss] with an eye for Jules, and threats to something in the community he never imagined losing. 

This is a fast read…and a satisfying one.  Somehow varied elements including a first kiss, tree-sitting protestors, a kid-produced video that goes viral, and sweet sounds on a harmonica do not get in the way of a fairly believable tale set in Kentucky not so long ago.  

The book was published by Scholastic, Inc. and has labels, “appeals to 5th-7th graders” and “reading level Grade 5.”  Some writers of books for kids have the special skills to transcend the boundaries of labels.  Mary Knight has those skills.  

Organizing to Win, by Jim Britell

Reviewed by Stewart Acuff

Jim Britell’s book, Organizing to Win, is an important book for our time. It is an excellent how-to, DIY manual to teach grassroots environmental organizing and to just-getting-started citizen organizers. With micro chapters of one to a few pages, Britell takes us through traditional tactics of grassroots environmental activism and organizing.

From the 21 principles of community organizing, to creating a campaign and organization, to canvassing—what my tradition calls door-knocking—to raising money, lawyers, and legal action, and fighting the Violent Right, Britell guides us through necessary action to save the environment in your place, your piece of Earth.

Because Jim Britell and I come from different organizing traditions and perspectives, we naturally have some disagreements. The only one that matters much is nonviolent civil disobedience. Jim dismisses the tactic as ineffective. On the other hand, I’ve seen nonviolent civil disobedience work very well as part of a broader strategy in union and civil rights and anti-poverty work. Of course, we all watched as Lakota People stopped the Dakota Access Pipe Line with a rich mix of tactics. Theirs included tapping the power of ancient traditions, courage, and violation of unjust and immoral law.

Like any good organizer turned nonfiction author, Britell writes what he knows. And that is a lot. It’s enough to create a knowledge base that can launch widespread grassroots action to protect Earth and her climate and, thus, all humanity.

Britell betrays a consistent organizer’s lean ideology or worldview when he contrasts corporate neoliberalism with community organizer Saul Alinsky’s perspective: “A central tenet of neoliberalism is a tendency to view the purpose of government in strictly economic terms, and to ascribe the cause of most problems to market inefficiency and too little competition. A defining characteristic of this approach is a reluctance to ascribe the cause of any problem to pervasive and systematic corruption, or the ability of the rich and strong to take advantage of the poor and weak.” 

“This theory is in sharp contrast to what activists have learned from decades of experience—a worldview best summed up by Saul Alinsky’s saying that “We live in a world of unbelievable deceit and corruption…. Giant corporations are unbelievably oppressive and follow a win-lose philosophy… and will go to any length to make money.”

Organizing to Win is so broad and comprehensive that it covers the most elementary getting-started advice to organizational, agency, and nonprofit management—including human resources. Britell even devotes a chapter to excoriating the Green Party.

Because of his feet-on-the ground, do-it-yourself approach, Jim Britell has done our Earth a great service. It is not at all clear that nation states or national governments can or will exercise enough power to rein-in the destructive behavior of unfettered global capitalism that threatens climate, the Earth, and humanity. The best vehicle to ramp up pressure on both governments and corporations is uprisings of average people in community after community around the world, standing against local corporate environmental abuses.

I’ve read this great book through two lenses: 1) my lifetime as a community, union and political organizer, and 2) my activism in my community’s proud, determined, loving, strategic, courageous, vigorous, strong, comprehensive campaign to stop the Danish-owned Rockwool Corporation from building a toxic, perhaps deadly insulation factory in our Appalachian Shenandoah Valley. The factory would burn massive quantities of fossil fuels to melt rocks and waste to make building insulation.

For four years in Jefferson County, WV we have waged a nonviolent grassroots struggle to protect our people and neighbors and environment from Denmark’s Rockwool.

We turned around local politics in 2018, taking seats from Rockwool supporters. We won a huge court case invalidating the first and primary development agreement, but Gov. Jim Justice then substituted his state support and budget for what we defeated locally. We mobilized thousands of everyday folks to jam local meetings, hearings, county commission meetings, and utility commission events and three major demonstrations of strategically targeted nonviolent civil disobedience actions. Some of us even walked across the Zealand Island/Province of Denmark to its Parliament Building in Copenhagen to try to enlist the good people in Denmark to support our struggle.

So far we have yet to succeed in stopping Rockwool or climate change.

Ultimately, humans will destroy humanity with our greed, arrogance, and evil in high places if the people of the world—collectively and through our institutions—don’t act to break the power of corporations to break our Earth and destroy our climate.  We can all help create the human uprising and movement to save humanity. Reading Jim Britell’s Organizing to Win is a great beginning.

Stewart Acuff may be contacted at