In "The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era," Shawn Francis Peters shows himself to be a thorough, detail-oriented and entertaining author and historian. Fascinated his entire life with the nine Catholic anti-war activists who in 1968 looted a draft board and burned with napalm draft files in Baltimore's suburban Catonsville, Peters had been writing this book in his mind and on paper since he was a child.
Peters, who teaches in the integrated liberal studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, admitted as much in the book's preface, and the author's revelation is exemplified in his ability to tell a good story while sharing a vast amount of facts within religious and historical context.
Peters' near-obsession is understandable, as the story of the Catonsville Nine is quite juicy. Its colorful characters include a pair of rebellious priest brothers and an ex-nun and ex-priest who wed after being exiled from Guatemala and leaving Maryknoll.
The story took place predominately in 1968, a time of change within the Catholic Church and unrest throughout the country related to the Vietnam War, poverty and civil rights. During this election year, then-candidate Richard Nixon's chosen running mate was none other than Spiro Agnew, the governor of Maryland with a reputation as a law-and-order hardliner ready to quash frivolous protesters. This vice presidential pick drew protesters who not only supported the Catonsville Nine but hoped to affect the general election with their rallies.
The intersection of politics and Catholicism surrounding the act of civil disobedience also was compelling. According to Peters, priests and Catholic laypeople acting out in such a bold and illegal way shook many preconceptions about seemingly apathetic Catholics, especially during a time. Pope Paul VI's call for "war never again" and Dominican Father Gustavo Gutierrez's liberation theology were among the things that fueled the nine to raid that draft board, ironically located in a Knights of Columbus hall.
It is no wonder that plays have been produced to showcase this event rooted in religious and political turmoil. But it is not Peters' straightforward retelling of the events and characters in the story that make this particular book stand out. It is his painstaking attention to detail that keep the reader engaged. It is his research and writing that make "The Catonsville Nine" seem like a firsthand account of the planning, execution, trial and aftermath of that fateful protest.
Peters not only shares anecdotes and stories about the upbringing and adulthoods of the activists and draft board clerks, he offers interesting insight about the defendants' and prosecutors' legal strategies. For the prosecution, Steven Sachs, then-U.S. attorney for Maryland, assembled a team of a by-the-books lawyer partnered with an antiwar sympathizer. Peters included in the book an account of that persuasive conversation between boss and skeptical younger attorney, creating a sort of behind-the-scenes episode of "Law and Order."
For the American church history and politics enthusiast, Peters offers a solid account of this interesting story of the Vietnam era. But with his ability to entertain with details and anecdotes, Peters also grabs the attention of those only vaguely familiar with and interested in anti-war protests of the late 1960s. It is a book that can be enjoyed by anyone interested in American history.