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In the late 1970’s the Galveston Bay was plagued by chemical dumping and oil spills resulting in declining fish and shrimp populations. As Vietnamese refugees arrived in the small Gulf towns to fish, the backlash of the white fishermen escalated from harassment to arson and violence. After one fight led to a fatality, the KKK arrived to further intimidate the Vietnamese to flee the coast. This fine examination of the period tells two stories: in the foreground are the racial divisions, the bigotry, violence and dramatic courtroom trials that ensued; the backstory describes the corporate plunder of the state and towns by the petrochemical companies that benefited from the divisive distraction while they poisoned the waters and created perhaps the worst cancer belt in the country. A final toxic legacy of the era is that while the KKK was forced to shut down its militias in the near term, the then Grand Dragon left to Idaho and eventually advanced the leaderless cell and lone wolf model of that the white power movement uses for terror today. And so it goes.
New York Public Library Best of 2022
A gripping, twisting account of a small town set on fire by hatred, xenophobia, and ecological disaster—a story that weaves together corporate malfeasance, a battle over shrinking natural resources, a turning point in the modern white supremacist movement, and one woman’s relentless battle for environmental justice.
“Riveting…it has a little of everything that a thrilling story needs. It feels quite prescient, as if something we’re living out now, you can see scenes of it then. A gripping book that deserves a wide readership.”--George Packer, author of The Unwinding
By the late 1970s, the fishermen of the Texas Gulf Coast were struggling. The bays that had sustained generations of shrimpers and crabbers before them were being poisoned by nearby petrochemical plants, oil spills, pesticides, and concrete. But as their nets came up light, the white shrimpers could only see one culprit: the small but growing number of newly resettled Vietnamese refugees who had recently started fishing.
Turf was claimed. Guns were flashed. Threats were made. After a white crabber was killed by a young Vietnamese refugee in self-defense, the situation became a tinderbox primed to explode, and the Grand Dragon of the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan saw an opportunity to stoke the fishermen’s rage and prejudices. At a massive Klan rally near Galveston Bay one night in 1981, he strode over to an old boat graffitied with the words U.S.S. VIET CONG, torch in hand, and issued a ninety-day deadline for the refugees to leave or else “it’s going to be a helluva lot more violent than Vietnam!” The white fishermen roared as the boat burned, convinced that if they could drive these newcomers from the coast, everything would return to normal.
A shocking campaign of violence ensued, marked by burning crosses, conspiracy theories, death threats, torched boats, and heavily armed Klansmen patrolling Galveston Bay. The Vietnamese were on the brink of fleeing, until a charismatic leader in their community, a highly decorated colonel, convinced them to stand their ground by entrusting their fate with the Constitution.
Drawing upon a trove of never-before-published material, including FBI and ATF records, unprecedented access to case files, and scores of firsthand interviews with Klansmen, shrimpers, law enforcement, environmental activists, lawyers, perpetrators and victims, Johnson uncovers secrets and secures confessions to crimes that went unsolved for more than forty years. This explosive investigation of a forgotten story, years in the making, ultimately leads Johnson to the doorstep of the one woman who could see clearly enough to recognize the true threat to the bays—and who now represents the fishermen’s last hope.
About the Author
Kirk Wallace Johnson is the author of The Feather Thief and To Be a Friend Is Fatal, and the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, which he started after serving with USAID in Fallujah. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times, and on This American Life, among others.
"[A] powerful story...thoughtful and thoroughly researched. Although many of these events occurred more than 40 years ago, there is a queasy topicality to the fight for the Texas Gulf."--The Economist
“Fast-paced though complex account of ethnic collision among the fisheries of Gulf Coast Texas…[Johnson’s] fascinating and disturbing narrative is a winning mix of biography, true crime, and ecological study. A carefully written investigation full of villains—and the occasional hero.”--Kirkus (Starred Review)
“[A] richly reported and dramatically rendered investigative work…a sweeping story about racism, oil, big business, and climate change. Part thriller, part courtroom drama, and part environmental crusade.”--Fortune
“Xenophobia, the ethical limits of free speech, environmental disaster, the psychological effects of war, corporate greed—Johnson tackles all of these and more in his follow-up to 2018’s The Feather Thief…a sprawling historical narrative with sobering connections to our current moment. Book clubs interested in nonfiction selections will find much to work with here.”--Booklist(Starred Review)
“Johnson spins a twisty tale that reads like a cross between a crime thriller and Where the Crawdads Sing in its vivid setting of the scene. He blows the lid off a true story lost to history—which still feels shockingly relevant today.”--Amazon (“Best Nonfiction Books in August“)
“A sweeping tour de force of reportage and storytelling.”--Raffi Khatchadourian, Staff Writer forThe New Yorker
“Fascinating pieces of this story were lying around for the taking…but Johnson deserves tremendous credit for weaving together so many compelling tales. In this narrative chock full of details, he ably pieces together a tale that teaches us a lot about the struggle that so many Texas fishermen still face, though these days threats come more from climate change than from men in white robes. And, now as it was then, from corporate polluters. This relevant and revelatory book provides deeper information about truly shocking episodes in coastal Texas history—but also reason to hope.” --Texas Observer
“Johnson’s exceptional research, including interviews with…Klan sympathizers, and members of the Vietnamese community, allows him to marshal this sprawling history into a propulsive narrative. The result is a fascinating study of the forces roiling the Texas Gulf Coast and other parts of America.”--Publisher’s Weekly
“Johnson builds an exhaustive and disturbing account of how racism drove…white fishermen to misdirect their personal and economic frustrations onto the Vietnamese, setting the immigrants’ boats and houses on fire and eventually enlisting the might of the Ku Klux Klan.”--New York Times (“6 Audiobooks to Listen to Now.”)
“Though The Fishermen and the Dragon is ostensibly an investigative accounting of past events…it reveals much to us about our future. What happens when multinational corporations destroy traditional, local ways of life through greed, incompetence, and malfeasance? And then what happens when displaced communities, with no agenda other than to feed their families, are added to the mix? Kirk Wallace Johnson tries to answer these questions—and more—in this deeply reported story of struggling Texas Gulf Coast fishermen, Vietnamese refugees, rampant and widespread pollution, blatant xenophobia, and the deeply racist violence that inevitably ensues. There is a lesson here, and we’d better learn it fast.”--LitHub (“The Most Anticipated Books of 2022“)
“[T]he true story of struggling fishermen, racism and xenophobia, and environmental disaster on the Texas Gulf Coast in the 1970s.”--BookRiot(“40 of the Best Summer Reads for 2022“)
“Two stories interweave, collide, and ripple for more than 40 years, and Johnson’s thorough, diligent research and brisk storytelling make this narrative compelling for those seeking thrills or truths. Recommended for readers interested in environmental or racial justice and the power of activism.”--Library Journal