Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Case for Solomon: Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping that Haunted a Nation

by Tal McTenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright, Free Press, August 2012.

 ... a fascinating story that could have been edited a little better. 

This book tells the story of a sensational kidnapping of a four year old boy in Louisiana in 1912. The coauthors have produced an extremely well researched book. The story in a nutshell - Bobby Dunbar son of Lessie and Percy Dunbar disappears from a family campsite right around dinner time. Despite extensive search efforts no trace of Bobby is found. Initially it is believed he has drowned or perhaps been eaten by an alligator (remember we are in Louisiana) but as time goes on with no sign of him his parents become convinced that he has been kidnapped. Bobby has a distinguishing mark - a burn scar on his big toe. The public's fascination with the boy's disappearance leads to many reported sightings throughout the Gulf Coast. Bobby's father faithfully follows up on each sighting. Finally William Walters a travelling piano tuner accompanied by a young boy with a strong resemblance to Bobby becomes the focus of the search. Despite the fact that this boy does not have a scar on his foot and despite the fact that Bobby's parents do not immediately identify him as their son and despite the fact that after 8 months the child does not recognize the Dunbars nor a younger brother Alonzo the child is taken from Walters and taken in by the Dunbars as their son Bobby. When a destitute single mother from North Carolina Julia Anderson steps forward to claim the boy as her son Bruce Anderson she is consistently shunted aside.
SPOILERS AHEAD The story takes some twists and turns after this. Walters is tried and found guilty of kidnapping despite all kinds of evidence that should have helped acquit him. Various neighbors and friends are fairly sure that this child is not Bobby Dunbar. Through some strange legal maneuverings Walters is released from jail (again remember we are in Louisiana). The story follows the Dunbars through their post kidnapping life. Not a happy story - the Dunbar parents divorce and the boys grow to adulthood with the kidnapping as a defining family story.
The authors have managed to capture the state of the nation in this story. Lynching is a possibility as the public sentiment is inflamed against the accused kidnapper. The role that newspapers play in influencing public opinion is paramount in this story and well told by the authors. The legal system in Louisiana is not well evolved and is also a major culprit.
The real strength of this story though is that after years of uncertainty as to whether this child is truly Bobby Dunbar we finally get the answer through DNA testing. The child that was taken in by the Dunbar's as their son Bobby was not - he actually was Bruce Anderson.
One of the authors was the grandchild of the boy who was raised as Bobby Dunbar so we get a real inside family view. The one really amazing statement that Bobby Dunbar, this man of dubious identity made was - it doesn't matter where you've come from, it matters what you do with the life you are given. So true!
This is a good period piece of history. Don't use the ereader for this one, the accompanying pictures make the book purchase well worth it. The story went on a little long with perhaps too much detail; a better editing would have served it well. Despite that it is a fascinating read.

I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.


Zibilee said...

I just got this book, and can't wait to read it! You've made me really curious about what eventually happens with this case, and why it was so mangled in the first place. Fabulous review today! I really enjoyed your take on it!

gautami tripathy said...

I wanna read it! Thanks for your review...

Here is my review of Bleed for Me by Michael Robotham.