Book Review

Excavation of the past is exacting work. In Stamford ’76, JoeAnn Hart unearths facts and memories in a book that is part true crime story and part exploration of a personal past as a young, white woman in a relationship with a black man in those now distant years of the seventies in America. As Hart’s book demonstrates, if one remains open during the excavation process, it is possible to dredge up unexpected, sometimes unwelcome, truths and thus reveal how one’s past has been woven out of assumptions, the narratives of others, and a collective story told to cloak uncomfortable realities. Yet, dig too randomly or too timidly, and meaning is left obscured.

Hart writes about the slow process of remembering and comprehending two murders in Stamford, Connecticut in the bicentennial year 1976. The first victim was Margo Olsen, a young drug-addled white woman found buried in an abandoned potters’ field with a hunting arrow lodged in her heart. Two months later, the second victim was Margo’s boyfriend, Howie Carter, a black man caught up in dealing drugs and killed by a police officer after a liquor store robbery. Hart has personal reasons for seeking to understand Howie and Margo’s deaths. Like Margo, Hart is white and in 1976 was in a relationship with a black man who had grown up in Stamford. Hart’s boyfriend, Joe Louis—charismatic and charming, a one-time Columbia student and would-be politician—was Howie’s friend and occasional drug-dealing business partner. Beginning her excavation when her children were young and hoping to protect them from the unexamined fear that haunted her after the murders, Hart writes of her motives: “Armed with a quiver full of justice and indignation, I was going to reveal long-buried truths about their deaths, and with them, the underground streams of institutionalized racism and police malfeasance that once seeped through Stamford like a broken sewer.”

Hart lets us know in the opening chapter that one of the things she had buried so long ago is that Howie himself—a hunting bow ornamented his bedroom wall—was the most likely suspect in Margo’s murder. And while uncovering the truth about the murder is her stated goal, her purpose in writing the book shifts to focus more, although not exclusively, on her own past as she tries to understand the reasons why she failed to ask questions about the two deaths at the time. She writes that she had to “open the box marked Fragile,” where, “nestled along with all my long-stored emotion, was a three-pronged mission: (1) figure out what happened to Margo; (2) remember what had been going on with me; and (3) try to understand why her death made me so wary, so long.”

By the time Hart wrote Stamford ’76, not only were Howie and Margo dead, but Joe had died of liver disease related to alcoholism. Information for her research was scarce: Howie and Margo’s families refused to let her interview them; former friends were hard to find; police files went missing. She scoured Joe’s unpublished autobiographical novel and a book by a former Stamford police officer on rampant corruption in the police force, but much of her search for the “world we lived in” was done by reading the Stamford Advocate of 1976. As she reads the newspaper, she tries to resurrect that world through published advertisements (the price of Max Factor lipstick at the Genovese Drugs Hart shopped at was under a dollar); the want ads (separate listings for men and women, and the jobs in the women’s column were mostly secretarial); and news accounts of housing discrimination and police corruption. She searched for articles on Margo and Howie’s deaths, and she found them, although they left her with more questions than answers. Why did the newspaper not follow through with accounts of suspects in Margo’s death? Why did the account of Howie’s killing by the police officer not mention Howie was a suspect in the earlier murder? Why did both stories simply disappear?

At the time, Joe had created his own explanatory narrative: the police had no evidence to “convict a presumably innocent Howie for Margo’s death, so they killed him instead, and—like everything else in Joe’s black-and-white world—it was racially motivated.” In courageously wrestling with the legacy of Joe’s narrative, the questions raised by the newspaper’s accounting, and implications on the realities of life in 1976 Stamford, Hart looks at the duality of the two white women/black men couples, searching for her own explanations. Yet the issues of race and feminism raised by her story—and both listed in the book’s subtitle—prove too demanding for a book of this format to adequately address.

At many points while reading Stamford ’76, I wanted to excavate deeper to reveal more truths, as uncomfortable as they might be, that would help me understand these four people, the world they inhabited, their relationships to one another, the complex individuals they all were. I repeatedly wished Joe, Howie, and Margo had avoided their fates and could have looked back on and interpreted those years for us as well. Some of the poignant details Hart gives us in her book are dismissed. For example, Joe often quotes Shakespeare, but, looking at it from a distance of decades, Hart says he probably had “no more Shakespeare than could be picked up from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.” How would Joe have described his affinity for Shakespeare? And some fundamental details remain largely unexplored. In his novel, Joe describes Howie with affection and Margo as “the weirdest person he had ever met.” Hart calls Howie “downright creepy” when she knew him. She tells us she was close to neither Margo nor Howie. How much, then, did they really mean to Hart at the time, and how did their significance for her change as she looks back?

Joe, writes Hart, “created our own history for 1976, but it’s proved to be an unconvincing narrative.” By the end of the book, she has created her own narrative to answer her questions of why Margo and Howie died and how those killings fit into the broader narrative of corruption, race, and the mob in Stamford in 1976. But it is unclear to me whether the narrative of Margo and Howie’s final moments with which Hart closes is fact-based or hypothetical or some combination of the two. Despite all Hart has unearthed, I am left uncertain how much closer to the truth her history of these two deaths in 1976 Stamford is than Joe’s. It is, however, a narrative that allows her to process her own “long-buried truths.” As she writes, “it is the story I found, not the one I set out for, a story told in gray, not one so black and white.”

About the Reviewer

Lisa Harries Schumann lives outside Boston and is—among other things—a writer and collector of stories, both fiction and nonfiction, and a translator from German to English, working on texts whose subjects have ranged from penguins to radio broadcasts by the cultural critic Walter Benjamin.