Joseph Hartmann served as Vice-Consul at the American Embassy in Georgetown at the height of Jonestown’s existence in Guyana. His experience gave him the background to write Before White Night: Rescue from Jonestown (New York: Diversion Books, 2012), a fictionalized account of the 1978 tragedy and – earlier – of a real-life team which was to have been sent in to rescue some Jonestown residents and reunite them with their relatives.
In the story, a young girl named Katrina is taken to Jonestown with her mother, Priscilla, a dedicated member of Peoples Temple. While there, they are visited by John, Katrina’s father and Priscilla’s ex-husband. He sees that his daughter has lost significant weight and looks considerably malnourished. His fears are confirmed when Katrina gives him a necklace with the words “Help me” inscribed on the locket. John sets out on a journey to rescue Katrina from Jonestown. To his great fortune, he encounters men and women stationed in Guyana who are willing to assist in the attempt. A plan is put into action to “capture” the teenage girl and reunite her with a determined father.
Hartmann’s life is reflected in the character of American diplomat Bill Hausman, a Vietnam War veteran and one of the group of individuals who mastermind the escape plan, and the portrayal made me feel as if I actually knew the man. In detailed fashion, the author also created a contrast in the lives of John, Roland, Ski, and Celeste, the other members of the rescue team, yet showed how these contrasting lives are brought together for the welfare of another. The “family” struggles between John, Katrina, and Priscilla are described very well, and I could feel the complete sense of urgency throughout most chapters.
I also enjoyed the way the book detailed rescue preparations: The team took aerial photos of the commune and the author gave specific information about the surrounding area of Jonestown, which is not discussed in most books on the subject. Hartmann suggests that Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham allowed the Americans’ move to Guyana as a propaganda coup to demonstrate to the United States that many of its citizens protested their government’s practices. It should be noted that the rescue effort as portrayed in the book didn’t happen, and – aside from the aborted rescue plan – the U.S. government had no other direct involvement with what happened in Jonestown, including the disaster of the final day. It should also be noted that the author withheld a full discussion of his own experience with the Temple – and especially the aftermath of the deaths – until the book’s afterword.
One of the drawbacks to the book was a limited perspective of Priscilla and Katrina and their lives in Jonestown. In the prologue, for example, Katrina joins her friend, Judi, in lining up for a “White Night” rehearsal. A poisonous drink has been concocted and the girl is searching for her mother, but she’s nowhere to be found. The text then reads simply, “This was life in Jonestown.” The set-up of the encounters of the individuals helping John seek his daughter was also too coincidental to be completely believable. Finally, the novel’s epilogue gives only a short and somewhat repetitious depiction of the immediate aftermath to the commune’s final hours, and suggests that by the time of Leo Ryan’s arrival, Jonestown’s residents were unable to resist what was coming. “In such a weakened state,” Hartmann writes, “[followers] were easily manipulated, drugged, and brainwashed into becoming puppet-like followers of Jim Jones.” While I do state these points as drawbacks, they provided maximized curiosity into differing perspectives and practically force the reader into further study.
For those who have researched Peoples Temple, or were a part of it, you will find the book engaging, even if a little surreal. To those that have not, the book should not be one’s only attempt to understand Temple life (especially in Guyana). It is important to note that the author does not reveal actual names of the rescue team. Hartmann did this so he could heighten plot effects in his writing. In contrast, central characters to the real story of Jonestown and Peoples Temple – Jim Jones, Sharon Amos, Prime Minister Burnham, Ptolemy Reid – are named to give the novel a baseline of real people and events.
(Matt Fulmer is an elementary teacher of 13 years. He resides in Florence, Alabama, and is pursuing an Educational Specialist Degree. He may be reached at email@example.com.
(Another review of this book appeared in The Roanoke Times.)