Keneally, Tom. Three Famines

Knopf, $49.95

In famines, the physical effect of starvation is not the greatest killer. The related complications from opportunistic diseases that thrive due to the body’s collapsed immune system kill most starving people. Communities fall to disease outbreaks. Communities also shrink as people leave to find food elsewhere, or are forced to leave. The ties that bind family and neighbourhood break.

Tom Keneally analyses three historical famines embedded in public consciousness: the Gorta Mór, Ireland’s “potato famine” in the middle of the nineteenth century; Bengal’s famine during the end of WW2; and the Ethiopian famine of the 1970s and 1980s.

Although these famines may have been sparked by crop failure, pests, and other natural disasters, Keneally argues that the actions, and ideologies, of dictators and questionable government policies have prolonged famines at the expense of health and lives.

These three famines are dissected in alternating chapters, with no aspect left unexamined. “Triggers”, the reasons for each famine, are followed by compare-and-contrast chapters describing the villains in each land, like the British Treasury official responsible for Irish famine relief, Trevelyan, and of course Ethiopian dictator, Mengistu, the despot who shipped 400,000 bottles of Scotch to Addis Ababa for celebrations to mark the tenth anniversary of his revolution, while Ethiopians were dying on a “biblical scale”. Famine relief, effective or otherwise, seems to improve over the years, but there’s a caveat to look out for the future. Humanity has not seen the end of famine.


Reviewed September 2010