News & Ideas

Following the “Iron River”

Illustration of an aAmerican flag flying over the sun setting on a moatly red river that has guns floating in it.
Graphic by Mel Rico

Ieva Jusionyte exposes the cross-border trade that perpetuates a cycle of gun violence.

Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence across the Border (University of California Press, 2024), by Ieva Jusionyte RI ’23

Ieva Jusionyte spent five years in the borderlands of Mexico and the United States studying a subject that most of us would rather ignore and immersing herself in lives that we can only dimly imagine. The result is Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence Across the Border, a work of remarkable diligence, shrewdness, and empathy that follows the “iron river” of firearms that flows from north to south; the violence this trade generates; and the players that keep it in motion.

“Before I saw the guns, I saw the wounds,” Jusionyte, now a professor of anthropology at Brown University, writes of her earlier career as an EMT and paramedic. Specifically, it was her experience as a medical aid volunteer at a migrant center in Nogales, Sonora, that prompted her to write Threshold: Emergency Responders on the US-Mexico Border (University of California Press, 2018), and Exit Wounds is a companion volume of sorts to that earlier book, exposing as it does the US industry and the cross-border trade—both legal and illegal—that facilitate and perpetuate a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

The facts alone are powerful: In 2021, the author notes, US manufacturers produced nearly 8 million handguns and almost 4 million rifles. “If researchers are right, about a quarter million of those US-made weapons … ended up in Mexico,” Jusionyte writes, adding that since 2018 “more than a hundred thousand Mexican citizens died from gunshot wounds. Over a million tried to flee their country.” There are just two gun stores in Mexico. There are 9,940 gun stores in US states bordering Mexico.

Alongside the statistics and the history that Jusionyte so expertly illuminates are the life stories of victims and perpetrators (the distinction less clean than we care to imagine), which she reveals by following a handful of people. Samara, recruited at age 14 into organized crime, rides “in a truck with four armed men under her command … a .22 or a 9mm holstered to her leg, an AK-47 strapped across her chest.” Ricky, a gun smuggler, tries desperately to survive; Miguel, an affluent industrialist, arms himself with American guns; two federal agents, Jackson and Alex, tirelessly investigate cross-border weapons trafficking; and Juan, a journalist facing unimaginable danger, reports on crimes that are the stuff of nightmares.

Jusionyte visits the scenes of some of the worst atrocities and describes the torture and mass murder carried out by paramilitary gangs like the infamous Zetas. These chapters are not for the fainthearted. Yet no detail is gratuitous or exploitative. In this expertly constructed narrative, Jusionyte’s steady gaze never falters as she exposes the reality behind the news headlines and the bloody consequences of current immigration and gun policy. She leaves us with a powerful image: “Of the guns and the wall. Both forged from steel. Both made in America.” And her final appeal is to our common humanity.

Sorry for the Inconvenience but This Is an Emergency: The Nonviolent Struggle for Our Planet’s Future (Hurst, 2024), by Lynne Jones RI ’11

Worlds apart from the United States and Mexico, Greenham Common in Berkshire, England, became a famous site of civil disobedience when a group of women set up camp there in 1981. They were protesting the British government’s decision to allow the storage of US cruise missiles, and Lynne Jones, a recently qualified young physician, soon joined the encampment. Jones had already enlisted in the Medical Campaign against Nuclear Weapons, a group also founded in 1981 by physicians determined to raise awareness of “the medical implications of nuclear war.” Her life soon became one of dedicated activism and foreign aid work, much of which she has documented in books such as The Migrant Diaries (Fordham University Press, 2021) and Outside the Asylum: A Memoir of War, Disaster, and Humanitarian Psychiatry (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2018).

Sorry for the Inconvenience but This Is an Emergency revisits those Greenham days and pithily evokes the protesters’ resilience in the face of appalling weather, primitive camp conditions, and repeated arrests and insults. A “nonviolent guerilla warfare with humour,” is the author’s irreverent description. Her main focus, however, is on more recent years of global mass protest and nonviolent action in the face of climate chaos and the undiminished threat of nuclear annihilation. For, as one organizer observes, “There are two primary routes to total extinction of the human race, nuclear war and climate destruction, and their root causes are the same.”Jones skillfully conveys the evidence supporting that view, citing numerous natural disasters that are dismissed by skeptics as “just weather” but experienced by those in the Global South in particular as total devastation. When listing the profits made by the largest oil and gas companies, she admits to being “filled with a kind of wondering fury” at how the culpable are richly rewarded.

Yet her tone is consistently witty, engaging, and empathetic. Whether writing about the imaginative tactics used by Extinction Rebellion or more sedate local actions, including a variety of effective boycott and divestment campaigns, this author deftly balances the personal with the political. Individual voices consistently ring true here, enlivening what might otherwise have become a dense, and even dispiriting, narrative. “If I feel afraid, that gives power to those people,” Bernardo, a Guatemalan campaigner, says of the authorities that jailed and tortured him for resisting the destruction of his people’s lands.

The last US cruise missiles left Greenham Common in 1992, following the Gorbachev-Reagan summit, but the encampment remained intact as an antinuclear protest until the last women left in 2000. Jones insists that they made a difference and that nonviolent action remains critical to changing the disastrous course on which we are set. In just one volume, she summons the turbulent past, chaotic present, and perilous future of life on our fragile planet. “We cannot do it alone, but it can be done,” she concludes. “That is why I am standing here.”

Inverno (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2024), by Cynthia Zarin ’81

Cynthia Zarin’s entrancing novel opens with a woman named Caroline standing in a snowstorm in Central Park waiting for a phone call from a man she has not seen for 30 years. Or has it been that long? In this sinuous narrative, facts, like landmarks in a blizzard, lose their solidity. Shards of memory, on the other hand, are as sharp as ice crystals: a child’s cut knee, the rickety porch of a summer cottage, a lover’s hand loosening a necktie. From the intimate opening sentences—“She woke too early. She’d gone to sleep late and woke during the night. Bars of light fell where the Chinese rug was frayed”—we are embedded in her consciousness and see only what she sees.

Knowing less than Caroline knows, however, we are also in the dark much of the time and held in suspense as we try to piece together the sequence of what is, finally, the oldest story of all. “The truth is that she has never yet loved anyone the way she loves Alastair. Or loved Alastair.” The words are plain, although the meaning remains as elusive as Caroline herself. Yet we keep trying to glimpse it, this character seeming so tantalizingly close to us, and the reality that she inhabits so palpably present. Visiting Minneapolis, for example, Caroline “could hear the tidal river under the ice beyond the trees. It moved like the tail of an enormous animal. The river was frozen in some places, and broken up in others, as if the tail had cracked the ice.” Scenes from childhood, some of them dread-filled, from youth, marriage, motherhood, and heartbreak are interwoven with a Nordic folk tale—and even this is believable. “Each snarled thread leads to something else,” Zarin writes, summing up her own mysterious charm.

Baby Schema (Carcanet Poetry, 2024), by Isabel Galleymore RI ’23

The constellation of events and creatures retrieved from memory by Isabel Galleymore are wondrously transfigured in her poetry, to often comic if occasionally unsettling effect. “Busy, Busy,” for example, begins,

“Don’t you just love it when you’re held up
by a slug? On the path,
this hunkling of fudge
is plugging away at the task
                           of moving herself…”

While the relatively epic “Disneyland” opens with similar ease, declaring that,

“Making eye-contact with a squirrel
for a second or three too long,
I find myself still waiting
for nature to wave back.”

Motherhood, Mickey Mouse, species extinction, menstrual cycles, housekeeping chores: all these and many more everyday preoccupations collide or overlap in typically short poems whose ingenuity and sleight-of-hand couplings startle us on every page. Babies are, as we anticipate from the title, omnipresent. Or not yet present, or transformed into entities that defy our expectation of cuteness.

“Bringing them home for the first time
I wondered, had I made the right
choice, but
already I was a year or
two down the line, wiping, from their faces,
soft landscapes
of porridge – too late
to return them…” 

The title of that beguiling, irreverent meditation, “Interior Design,” sums up Galleymore’s wry wit. Viewed through her lens, nothing is quite what it seems to be. Or is more than we assume it to be. Time and again, this poet puts us at ease with familiar domestic imagery, then startles us out of our complacency by ushering wild nature into the tamed garden. Even into the playpen.

“Trees crawling with babies, babies/ darting through the sky,” she riffs in the poem “Fable,” which ends with nature in reverse, or chaos—take your pick. Defying analysis, inviting wonder, Galleymore most memorably declares in “A Ha-Ha,”

“… my love
was built to stop the livestock
clopping in and sitting at the escritoire

my love was built to stop."

Anna Mundow is a writer in central Massachusetts.

Return to the spring 2024 Radcliffe Magazine page.

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