YES NO MAYBE
By Drew Gallagher
Are the majority members of the Spotsylvania County, VA, School Board Nazis?
The short answer is “Of course not.” A mere desire of some to see books they deem offensive burned does not make them Nazis. After all, they’re professed Christians, and the Nazis were religious only to the extent that it furthered their larger aims. The Nazis wanted a religion that hewed to their overall ideology and built their ruling party out of fellow Germans of a like mind. They elevated people in their ranks who held the same fundamental beliefs that they did. Joseph Goebbels was named chief propagandist because of his fealty to Hitler.
It’s silly to think Spotsy’s school board majority would ever create a position for a propagandist who believes exactly as they do–a propagandist hired at a six-figure salary solely to free der Führers from the odious tasks of having to respond to their constituents. That would be ridiculous.
Well, OK. But it’s not as if they’re suggesting anything truly crazy, like getting rid of all the school librarians….
Still and all, the majority members of the Spotsylvania County School Board are NOT Nazis. In fact, it’s unfair to conjure a narrative that does not reflect the truth. I’m creating a bogeyman—a fear based upon a danger that does not seemingly exist. The Four Horsemen and -women of the Spotsy Schools Apocalypse are clearly not Nazis, though two of them did say—on camera—that they would like to burn books they didn’t like. (One, the recently-felony-indicted Kirk Twigg, even made The Daily Show with his braying comments about doing it.)
It is easy to save people from a danger that doesn’t exist, and Spotsylvania Republicans and a handful of parents are again returning to that well-worn playbook in going after books and school libraries under the banner of parental rights. Burn them? Likely not. But ban them—including novels by Nobel-prize author Toni Morrison? In Spotsylvania, there are 55 on the challenge list and counting—most of the challenges coming from one very concerned, very bored, or very ideologically-driven parent.
Author Brianna Labuskes’ new novel The Librarian of Burned Books is not young adult literature and so it is unlikely to appear on school library shelves in Spotsylvania, but if it did, no doubt it would also be in the conservatives’ crosshairs–a distinction that the author found not too terribly surprising.
“I have been finding it slightly ironic that my cautionary-tale book about book banning would in fact be banned in places,” she told me recently. “It really all comes back to this idea that some people want only certain voices to have a say in shaping our culture, our view of history, our identity as a country. And the voices book banners want to hear paint a superficial, propaganda-type world where people they haven’t even tried empathizing with just shouldn’t exist. Or if they exist, they should stay quiet about it so as not to disrupt a world view that’s so fragile it can be shaken with a book about Nazis or a Sapphic love story.”
The Librarian of Burned Books occurs over three different places and times, from the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Berlin, to France during the German Occupation, to WWII America. At the center of the story are three women who are given career- or even life-threatening choices to make as they consider combatting censorship in a variety of nefarious forms.
Labuskes, who lives in Asheville, NC, is a former journalist who recognizes the politics that underlie the recent push to control school boards and stoke fear among parents to help buoy the candidates who mine those fears for political gain. Her comments do not address the situation in Spotsylvania specifically, but are reflective of the national attacks levelled by parents and politicians on school libraries.
“It’s so unfair and also doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “Something I saw over and over again in my decade in D.C. was how dangerous PACs and Super PACs are to our country. These organizations give such outsized power to a small, vocal minority. And it is a minority that wants to ban books, even if they’re well-organized and well-funded. Poll after poll shows that Americans don’t support this kind of censorship. But when you have enough money behind an issue, a few people can have a very loud voice.”
“You have to ask yourself who is benefitting from all this,” Labuskes added. “People don’t pour nearly half a million dollars into tiny local positions without getting something out of it.”
Recent news photos have shown empty bookshelves in Florida, where new legislation has teachers scared about what they put on those shelves. Rather than subject themselves and their classrooms to scrutiny, the teachers have removed every book to avoid conflict. Of course, the people who are then negatively affected are the students in those classrooms. But whatever students may want seems irrelevant. Parents who want to attack books can easily find a hit list of offensive titles on conservative websites–mainly books that mention suicide, same-sex relationships, and America’s historical (and contemporary) treatment of minorities.
The Librarian of Burned Books doesn’t limit itself to fascist book burnings, which was focused on Jewish authors and any ideology not aligned with Nazism. Labuskes’ story also follows Senator Robert Taft of Ohio who attempted to ban certain books that were being sent to the troops overseas during World War II. Taft didn’t like the popular Franklin Delano Roosevelt and had aspirations to one day challenge him for the presidency. Roosevelt, and much of the country, lauded a book program that sent paperback books to the troops overseas to break up the boredom between moments of death interspersed with sheer horror. Taft, who also wanted to deny troops the right to vote because he knew that they’d support Roosevelt, demanded that titles such as The Great Gatsby be pulled from the books sent to troops. The fact that there were people during World War II who thought the themes in Gatsby might be offensive to troops who were witnessing fresh horrors every day is absurd. Kind of like parents thinking that pulling books from school library shelves will shield their children from the subjects of rape and suicide and same-sex relationships which are readily available on their phones or Netflix.
In Labuskes’ book, a librarian takes on Taft and all his political might because this is fiction and it makes for a compelling story. Asking school librarians to take the same fight to their local politicians in real life, where real careers might be at risk, is another matter. Labuskes, for one, thinks it’s a fight worth taking on.
“I’m a hopeless optimist—I do believe both readers and democracy will prevail. There have been book bans and burnings pretty much since there have been books. You can even look at our own fairly recent history and see it happen over and over again. Ulysses was banned from being published in the United States; in the early eighties, there was a similar moral panic to today’s that sparked the idea for Banned Books Week. One of my favorite sayings is that history might not repeat itself but it certainly does rhyme. Books are incredibly powerful—and people like to control powerful things for their own gains.”
There’s something in social psychology called pluralistic ignorance, or collective illusion. It’s when someone who holds a majority opinion thinks everyone else holds the opposite opinion. A big study in 2022 showed that up to 80 percent of Americans supported major climate change mitigation polices, and yet when asked to estimate what their fellow Americans thought, they said only about 40 percent did.
One man got 150 books in Florida pulled from the shelves of a high school in the state. One man. In a lot of the stories about bans across the country, the effort is being made by a select few people who don’t even have children in the school anymore. Pluralistic ignorance can lead to the bystander effect, which paralyzes the rest of us from acting in these situations to stop what’s being allowed to happen. We need to remind ourselves, when we contemplate fighting back against this injustice, that we’re supported by the vast majority of Americans.
The heroes in The Librarian of Burned Books do not emerge immediately. One is a popular American author who is a guest of the Nazis and gets swept up in the moment before witnessing books being thrown onto a pyre in the streets. That’s when the author realizes the true nature and horror behind the Nazi movement.
When book burning is discussed today, it doesn’t necessarily mean Nazis are at the front door, but it does mean that ideals and independent thought are under attack. The Spotsylvania County School Board majority members aren’t Nazis, but the fact that they say they want to burn books, or stay quiet when someone else suggests it–or put forth a proposal to defund all school libraries and eliminate all school librarian jobs–sure puts them in some dark company.
Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is the second most prolific book reviewer and first video book reviewer in the 136-year history of the Free Lance-Star Newspaper. You can find some of his video book reviews at Fredericksburg.com.
SPOTSY’S KIRK TWIGG PAID RESTITUTION
FOR SHOOTING NEIGHBORS’ HOME IN 2019
Neighbor Says a Bullet Struck Bedroom Window While Couple Was Inside
Steve Watkins, Editor
PIE & CHAI Magazine
On Saturday, November 23, 2019—five days before Thanksgiving—Rick Petrey and his wife were in their upstairs bedroom around 9 a.m. when a bullet shattered one of the bedroom windows six feet away. They heard multiple gunshots coming from across the road outside their rural home in southern Spotsylvania County.
Petrey, a building contractor who formerly worked in law enforcement, went outside to investigate and discovered that two other bullets had also struck the house, which sits 300 feet off Heron Pointe Way. One had hit a second window, another had pierced an attached garage.
According to Petrey, the gunshots seemed to have come from a wooded area to the west of their property, on the other side of Heron Pointe Way, but he said that he didn’t see anyone who might have been responsible for the shooting.
The Petreys’ 10-acre property extends from the thinly populated dead-end Heron Pointe Way through thick woods down to the Po River.
Petrey called the Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Department, who sent out a deputy to investigate further. According to Petrey, the deputy found Spotsylvania School Board member Kirk Twigg shortly after, either in the wooded area across the road, or in Twigg’s own yard on neighboring Sunnybrooke Farm Road.
Petrey said he didn’t know if Twigg had a weapon on him at the time, but that it was his later understanding from the deputy that Twigg had been hunting, and the shots fired–and three bullets hitting the Petreys’ house in three different locations–had been “an accident.”
Twigg, who hasn’t responded to any questions about the incident, was arrested three days later, on November 26, 2019, and charged with Reckless Handling of a Firearm, a Class 1 misdemeanor that can result in up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Twigg, 65, made national headlines last year when he called for Spotsylvania County to burn books he deemed inappropriate for student readers and school libraries. He has been in the headlines more recently, in February 2023, when he was indicted by a county grand jury on a felony charge of forgery, along with a misdemeanor count of tampering with public records. Those charges are reported to have stemmed from Twigg’s handling—or mishandling–of a contract for an interim school superintendent last summer when Twigg was serving as Spotsylvania School Board chair.
The forgery charge, a Class 4 felony, carries a potential prison sentence of two to five years. That case has been handed over by State Police and the Attorney General’s Office to the Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney for prosecution.
In the 2019 firearm case, online court records named Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Deputy M. Foster as the complainant in the subsequent case brought against Twigg. Neither the Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Department nor the Spotsylvania County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office would respond to questions about the arrest, or release any documents in response to an initial Freedom of Information request last fall.
Though Petrey spoke openly in a recent interview about the 2019 incident, the county’s justification for denying the initial FOIA request for the incident report and any other relevant documents, photographs, or video, was “[V]ictim has not given consent to disclosure.”
After a second FOIA request, however–and after publication of an earlier report in Pie & Chai about the case–the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office agreed to release photographs, body camera footage, and Deputy Michael Foster’s report about the incident. According to that report, Foster found Twigg at his Sunnybrooke Farm Road residence 45 minutes after Petrey called in the complaint, and Twigg admitted that he’d been out that morning in the woods hunting when the shots hit the Petreys’ home.
Twigg, who told the deputy he had been carrying a 12-gauge shotgun with buck shot rounds, as well as a 16-gauge shotgun with bird shot, acknowledged shooting at some squirrels in the direction of the Petreys’ property, but said he wasn’t certain how many times he’d fired. The deputy estimated the distance from Twigg to the Petreys’ home as approximately 220 yards.
Petrey and Deputy Foster were both subpoenaed as witnesses on behalf of the Commonwealth in the case against Twigg, which was twice continued until it was finalized three months after the incident—listed as “dismissed” in court records—on February 28, 2020.
According to Petrey, however, that wasn’t the end of it. Twigg agreed to make restitution for the damage to the Petreys’ home, and the Petreys received a check for approximately $2,000 issued by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Petrey said it was his understanding that the amount was the restitution paid by Twigg.
Then-Caroline County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Kelly Grace Green was brought in as a special prosecutor by the Spotsylvania office to handle the case against Twigg, according to Caroline Commonwealth’s Attorney John Mahoney.
Green, who is now in private practice, confirmed Petrey’s account of the incident, which she, too, characterized as being an accident. “We really couldn’t quite figure out how it happened,” she said recently, adding that there hadn’t been a state police investigation or reconstruction of the crime scene. Green said there was no indication that Twigg had been intoxicated or on drugs, or had been shooting wildly in the air.
Both Green and Petrey said there had been no ill will between the two men or their families, and no “negative intent” on Twigg’s part. Petrey said he’d never met Twigg before the incident and hadn’t seen him since, except in court.
Green said because Twigg had never been in trouble before, and because no one was injured, she felt the $2,000 restitution was an appropriate resolution, though she also required Twigg to complete a gun safety course, which she said he did.
Section 18.2-56.1 of the Virginia Code says that reckless handling of a firearm while hunting is additionally punishable by revocation of a hunting license for one to five years, but Green said because there was no conviction in the case, Twigg was allowed to keep his hunting license.