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Short takes

By Kate Tuttle
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2011

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THE RED MARKET: On the Trail of the World’s Organ
Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers

By Scott Carney
HarperCollins, 254 pp., illustrated, $25.99

Unlike, say, a car, there’s no agreed-upon price for a human kidney. In some countries it’s illegal to buy and sell kidneys; in others, Scott Carney writes, selling a kidney is common enough that poor people “view their organs as a critical social safety net.’’ In a provocative, entertaining new book, Carney argues that the American model of organ donation as a purely altruistic affair has serious shortcomings, exceeded only by a flourishing international “red market’’ in body parts.

The red markets Carney investigates range from relatively benign transactions that send the hair of Hindu devotees to salons in urban America to more troubling exchanges, such as American and European prospective parents using Indian women as gestational surrogates or criminal blood-bank suppliers on the Nepalese border who capture homeless men and bleed them twice a week. Perhaps the most upsetting chapter deals with Indian families whose children were kidnapped, then placed into an international adoption system that isn’t uniformly regulated; the American family of a son who had likely been trafficked was distraught after Carney contacted them, but nevertheless refused to make contact with his devastated birth family.

Carney’s habit of grouping fairly standard reproduction technology with more ethically vexing issues such as human cloning will strike many readers as overreaching, or even unfair. His tough-love lectures against trying to cheat death come across as nearly churlish (at one point he suggests that those waiting for a transplant should “think more realistically about mortality’’). Yet the book’s overarching argument — that most markets in human parts are fouled by systemic inequalities between donors and recipients — is both convincing and disturbing.

SISTER
By Rosamund Lupton
Crown, 336 pp., $24

Beatrice Hemmings is summoned home to London with news that her sister, Tess, has gone missing just weeks before her first child was due to be born. Soon after arriving from New York, Beatrice, a tightly-wound perfectionist, learns that Tess and her baby are both dead: the child from natural causes, and Tess by suicide, according to the police. This fast-paced, absurdly entertaining novel, Lupton’s first, unfolds in the form of a long letter from Beatrice to her adored (if sometimes patronized) younger sister. Along with a juicy mystery, it resounds with an authentic sense of sisterly love and loyalty.

As Beatrice follows clues and tries to convince the police that Tess was no suicide, Lupton gracefully sketches the sisters’ story, with its twin wounds of their brother Leo’s death at age 8 from cystic fibrosis and the departure some months later of their father. Beatrice sees the sisterly relationship as “the familiar scenario of being the superior, mature, older sister telling off the flighty, irresponsible young girl who should know better by now.’’ Dead at 21, Tess is destined never to know better, and it’s to the book’s great credit that we see how much the younger sister, even in death, has to teach her older sibling.

THE CLAMORGANS: One Family’s
History of Race in America

By Julie Winch
Hill and Wang, 432 pp., illustrated, $35

In 1911, suburban St. Louis found itself rocked by racial scandal when a white couple accused their daughter-in-law of hiding her identity as a black woman to ensnare their white son. The bride’s sister, also assumed to be white, had recently given birth to a child who looked unmistakably black. As historian Julie Winch writes, such dramas deeply unsettled many Americans, raising an uncomfortable question: “If these two families had crossed the racial divide, how many other ‘white’ families were keeping secret certain crucial facts about their racial identity?’’ If Winch’s book on one notable and fascinating family is any indication, the answer is: countless.

The black family chronicled in this sprawling, pain- stakingly researched history was founded by a Frenchman, Jacques Clamorgan, a speculator and all-around hustler. Arriving in St. Louis when it was still under Spanish rule, Clamorgan accumulated land holdings whose value was more theoretical than actual — a lesson his descendents learned slowly and painfully, over nearly a century of mostly-fruitless litigation. He died in 1814, leaving behind four children by three black women, all of whom he either owned or employed. Their sons, mostly classified as black when they were born, died as white men, either by virtue of the vagaries of (white) census takers or because of the strategic strivings of widows.

In this dense, thoughtful history, Winch looks at how and why people chose to pass into white society — what they hoped to gain and what they gave up (including, of course, family members who didn’t, or couldn’t, join them). At times the book bogs down in seemingly endless land disputes and court cases, but Winch’s sharp insights redeem it. The family’s white patriarch, Jacques Clamorgan, is often identified today as having been the first black settler in colonial St. Louis. As with his descendents, his racial identity depends in part on who’s looking, and what they want to see.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.