At first Raw Deal has the appearance of a humor book, which is what you’d expect from the author of Ken’s Guide to the Bible and The New Roadside America. It consists of 22 odd stories of mostly oddball people, each preceded by a cartoon drawing.
But while it has the occasional laugh and plenty of “OK, that’s a little weird” moments to it, there’s a seriousness, and indeed a sadness to this book.
The theme of the book is to tell the stories of Americans who achieved some degree of prominence at some point in their lifetime, and manifested at least the raw intellect and ability, and in some cases the actual accomplishments, to have seemingly earned a more lasting success and fame. Yet instead, they collapsed back into failure and obscurity as a result of forces beyond their control, which in most cases involved the evil and stupidity of others. Most of them had eccentricities, principles (some admirable, some just bizarre) they wouldn’t give up, and maybe a naiveté in dealing with people. But all eventually came to undeserved grief—they got a “raw deal.”
Smith’s response to the outrages he’s learned about in his research is to give these abused figures some brief, tiny return to the spotlight posthumously, along with an acknowledgement that they were treated unjustly by life and deserved better.
Not all the stories fully fit the theme as I’ve described it. The one that stands out the most from the others as a poor fit isn’t even about a human being. It’s the chapter on the intentional near extinction of the prairie dog. (It’s the chapter that least belongs in this book, but that’s not to say it’s the weakest chapter. It’s actually quite interesting.)
Several stories are about inventors who were one way or another cheated out of the credit and the money they should have received for what they came up with. For example, Charles Goodyear, despite having a modern tire company named after him, received nothing remotely close to the benefits he deserved for inventing the process of vulcanizing rubber that was a huge step forward in the industrial revolution.
There are two stories about Native Americans receiving shabby treatment from the United States government, which function as representative examples of how the Native Americans were treated by whites in general.
There’s an African who was brought to the United States to be put in a zoo, in the monkey house. There’s an African American named Thomas Wiggins, who the author claims was such a musical savant that he may have been the greatest musical genius of his time. Blind, he was born a slave, and then lived in a dependent state of near-slavery where he was exploited and showcased in circuses and such, which emphasized the parlor-trick aspects of his extraordinary talents, when he could have and should have been appreciated for so much more.
There are people murdered by the government (in CIA drug experiments and such), major corporations (Karen Silkwood, who is another that strikes me as not the best fit for the book; when you’re portrayed in a major Hollywood movie by Meryl Streep, I don’t think you’re sufficiently forgotten and unappreciated for this collection of folks), and lynch mobs.
Among those that don’t fall into any of these categories is President James Garfield, also certainly not obscure, but in the book because what should have been minor injuries sustained in an assassination attempt ended up being fatal due to medical incompetence.
Then there’s Floyd Collins, pinned under a rock and trapped in a very narrow passage of a cave he was crawling through. He likely would have survived, and certainly would have suffered less, if his would-be “rescuers” hadn’t been complete idiots more prone to bickering with each other than actually doing anything (while the whole area became a makeshift carnival to fleece the curiosity seekers who’d heard about the hapless Collins’s torturous plight).
There’s also William Sidis, whose highly unconventional and arguably emotionally abusive upbringing was almost certainly instrumental in creating maybe the most intelligent person in history (IQ estimated in the 250-300 range). The public admired him as a fascinating and curious child who had the potential to bring great benefit to the world, and then turned on him in a way that damaged and embittered him such that he chose an adult life of obscurity where he contributed virtually nothing.
In the end, maybe most readers will indeed see Raw Deal as an entertaining and sometimes humorous trivia book about human oddities. I think, though, that the author wants us to react against the cruelty and injustice of it all and to feel more for these folks, and in many cases I did.