September 1, 2011

THREE FAMINES

Starvation and Politics

By Thomas Keneally. PublicAffairs. 323 pp. $27.99

Best known for his novels, particularly the one that gave rise to the movie “Schindler’s List,” Australian Thomas Keneally has written nonfiction about himself and his native Australia, among other subjects. Here, as the title makes plain, he meditates on three famines: the potato famine in 1840s Ireland, the terrible hunger that struck Bengal in 1943, and the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and ’80s. Despite their variances in era and geography, Keneally finds that the three episodes share “part of the same DNA.”


‘Three Famines: Starvation and Politics’ by Thomas Keneally (PublicAffairs)

Most important, they were not caused mainly by food shortages, but rather by misguided decision-making. “In all the cases narrated here,” he writes, “mindsets of governments, racial preconceptions and administrative incompetence were more lethal than initiating blights, the loss of potatoes or rice or livestock or of the grain named teff.” The first two famines have long since ended, but Keneally notes that widespread hunger may not have yet finished with Ethiopia, where war could facilitate more outbreaks. As an historian quoted by the author puts it, “Mars counts for more than Malthus.” Or, to put it another way, war is a horrible method of population control.

Dennis Drabelle

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