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by Marisa Handler
(Berrett Koehler, 2007)

Marisa Handler’s memoir Loyal To the Sky is a series of round-the-world snapshots of her work as an activist and journalist. Handler was born in South Africa, then moved with her family to California, and she herself relocated to the San Francisco Bay area. She recounts political events which some readers may be familiar with such as protests in San Francisco against the Iraq war in 2003 as well as activist experiences in more exotic places she has visited such as Nepal and South America.

Handler makes no apologies about being a leftist. From her early political experience organizing a high school feminist group called Womyn Aloud to her work with leftist Jewish magazine Tikkun, which supports many aspects of the Palestinian struggle, she leaves little ambiguity about her political leanings. And the book is first and foremost a political narrative, not a travelogue. Its not that Handler doesn’t adequately describe the people and places she encounters, but just that political ideas are most important.

For some reason when I read the chapters on protests she attended, the events seemed as though they could have been 20 or 30 years ago instead of just three or four. Maybe it’s because the American political landscape has shifted so rapidly from the heyday of anti-globalization radicalism at the 1999 WTO protest in Seattle. Still Handler’s sketch of the 2003 FTAA protest in Miami does a good job of conveying the scene that later came to be known as the “Miami Model” because of the harsh crackdown on demonstrators.

The downside of the decentralized protest model of recent times is that in some ways everyone is a peripheral figure plugging in wherever needed. As a result, a true insider’s account is almost impossible. Handler does her best to accurately describe the political protests she was part of by offering accounts of events she saw, such as when she accidentally stumbled into a standoff between the police and the black bloc in Miami and becomes an impromptu negotiator. As she left the protest, a conversation with a Haitian cab driver about the impacts of free trade reminds everyone that there is actually a reason for these protests.

Handler also devotes several chapters to her relationship with Israel as a progressive-thinking American Jew. She first spends time in Israel as a college student and, despite the culture shock, finds she identifies with the people of Jerusalem. Later she goes on a speaking tour as part of the Tikkun campus network which is seeking out a “compassionate” middle ground in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

While Loyal to the Sky cannot be described as a definitive account of any of the subjects it describes, it also never tries to be. Instead it offers a diverse group of snapshots from an activist who experienced many different places and political struggles. Readers who are partial to the type of activism which Handler is involved in will find something of interest here.

– Brad Johnson