Sometimes I’m an idiot, and sometimes it works out okay anyway. I decided I wanted to take some non-fiction with me on holiday, something true-crime-ish. Hadn’t I always wanted to read about that historical event where all the people died? Yeah, thanks brain. I ended up buying Jonestown thinking I was going to read about Waco. Oops.
And yet, I still very much enjoyed reading The Road to Jonestown. I was a little perturbed by the writing – for great swathes of it, Guinn focuses on Jones’ many successes – his triumphs against small town racism, his endeavours for the poor and needy. There’s a degree of admiration in his tone that sits uncomfortably. For at least the first half of the book, there’s far less of a focus on Jones’ shady side – to the extent that by the time he moves hundreds of followers to Guyana and descends into full-blown paranoia, there’s a suddenness to it.
Allusions are made to abuse committed by the Temple against its followers, but very few examples are given. Names of those in Jones’ inner circle are rarely embellished with detail, so if you don’t make a note of who’s who when they’re introduced, you’ve no chance later on. Seemingly important figures in the Temple hierarchy disappear without mention, and Jones eventually took so many of the female congregants as lovers that you’d need a Filofax to keep them straight.
All this said, The Road to Jonestown is still a fascinating and deeply comprehensive biography. The level of research Guinn must have undertaken is enormous (although, lacking footnotes, the citations would make a painful trawl-through for anyone wanting to delve deeper). I feel that I now know all I could ever care to know about Jim Jones and the history of his Peoples Temple, and in that respect the book is a resounding success. For anyone interested in the subject, I’d highly recommend The Road to Jonestown.
[Read from 6-26 June 2017]