This post comes from Raul Chapa, our First Floor Inventory Manager and a native of the Rio Grande Valley. Join us when Laura Tillman speaks & signs the book here at BookPeople next Tuesday, April 5 at 7PM!
There are books that are difficult to read, but the themes and ideas therein are important and worthy of inclusion in our collective conscience. When a work is about murdered children, it is especially difficult because even the most hardened heart among us is affected by the stories of children being killed. The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts – part true crime and part sociological examination – is about murder and madness and the great divide between horrible acts and their effects on a neighborhood and city. It is a work that bravely examines how we often let ourselves down by succumbing to our inner weaknesses. It explores how society must come to grips with the consequences of heinous acts if not for the perpetrators or victims, but for the sanity of the community itself.
John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho were a common-law couple who lived in the poorest area of Brownsville with their three children. In 2003, after an evening of intoxication, they murdered their children in the rundown building where they lived. The murders were especially hideous and the people of Brownsville remember to this day how much they wanted the couple to pay for what they had done. Rubio was given the death penalty and Camacho was sentenced to prison without the possibility of parole until 2045.
As Tillman looked into the history of the neighborhood where the murders took place, she was struck by the abject poverty of the area and by the lack of resources available to the couple. She interviewed John Allen and describes a young man of great promise who is brought down by his inability to find adequate help for his struggles with mental illness and addiction. In the months before the murders, his own actions created an atmosphere of dreaded anticipation – it seemed obvious that something terrible was going to happen, but no one could have predicted the gruesomeness of the act itself.
Several years after the crime, the city of Brownsville found itself locked in a public struggle over whether to demolish the building where the crimes took place or to preserve it for its historical importance. Tillman balances both sides of the issue and examines the politics, culture and people living in the community. Many people in the neighborhood were convinced that the building was haunted by the ghosts of the children and wanted it demolish for that reason. On the other side were elected officials who asserted that since the hotel was one of the first buildings built in Brownsville, that it was worthy of preserving.Tillman’s brilliant reporting highlights the compromise that, while not solving all of the issues involved, served to unite the community in a new and different way – a way that helped the area financially and still assuaged the pain the crime had inflicted on the city.
Crimes against children are especially odious and not soon forgotten so it is natural that such execrable acts will hold influence over the places where they occur. Tillman’s book has a fantastic perspective because she manages to invoke not only what went wrong with John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho, but also what the city of Brownsville did to attempt to regain its sanity in the wake of the tragedy, ultimately finding a compromise that was able to give hope to a forlorn situation.