Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: Simon Schuster
Category: Non-fiction/True Crime
By the New York Times bestselling author of Manson, the comprehensive, authoritative, and tragic story of preacher Jim Jones, who was responsible for the Jonestown Massacre—the largest murder-suicide in American history.
In the 1950s, a young Indianapolis minister named Jim Jones preached a curious blend of the gospel and Marxism. His congregation was racially integrated, and he was a much-lauded leader in the contemporary civil rights movement. Eventually, Jones moved his church, Peoples Temple, to northern California. He became involved in electoral politics, and soon was a prominent Bay Area leader.
In this riveting narrative, Jeff Guinn examines Jones’s life, from his extramarital affairs, drug use, and fraudulent faith healing to the fraught decision to move almost a thousand of his followers to a settlement in the jungles of Guyana in South America. Guinn provides stunning new details of the events leading to the fatal day in November, 1978 when more than nine hundred people died—including almost three hundred infants and children—after being ordered to swallow a cyanide-laced drink.
Guinn examined thousands of pages of FBI files on the case, including material released during the course of his research. He traveled to Jones’s Indiana hometown, where he spoke to people never previously interviewed, and uncovered fresh information from Jonestown survivors. He even visited the Jonestown site with the same pilot who flew there the day that Congressman Leo Ryan was murdered on Jones’s orders. The Road to Jonestown is the definitive book about Jim Jones and the events that led to the tragedy at Jonestown.
Rating: 4 Stars
No one going into this book should expect a happy ending, or a happy story. It is, after all, the story of Jim Jones, the man behind the mass murder/suicide that inspired the saying “drinking the Kool-Aid” (a misnomer, as the drink was actually Flavor Aid).
Knowing this, I had to admire author Jeff Guin for his ability to complete this book. The sheer amount of research he did for this book was enormous. Being touted as the book on the Jonestown Massacre, being entrenched in this kind of information for months if not years on end is no mean feat.
The story begins with the discovery of the bodies at the site of the massacre, located along the border of Venezuela and Guyana, by members of the Guyana Defense Force and the National Service. The tone of the book is dire, as expected, and the writing is somewhat dry, heavy with a lot of military and political details as various groups attempt to uncover what is going on at the site of Jim Jones’s self named camp, Jonestown.
The narrative then backtracks in history to the early twentieth century and the early days of Jones’s mother: her murky origins, her lofty ambitions, and her personal interactions as she tried to make something of her life and that of the child a dream had told her would be a great person.
This history, while it might seem extraneous when you consider what that Jim Jones is most well known for his actions as an adult, is fascinating because is shows another side to this person. For example, as a child he was odd but friendly, particularly with a neighbor, Myrtle Kennedy. He even kept in touch with her throughout his life, though his communications were not the whole truth of his actions. It’s strange to think that someone that can inspire such tragic events as the Jonestown Massacre can show kindness to people, especially someone from his childhood that, really, he needn’t have kept in touch with if he didn’t care to.
An exhaustive work on quite the grim subject, Jeff Guinn has written a text that is unlikely to be surpassed in its depth of knowledge, its commitment. You’re likely to know about the end of the story, but in order to understand how it was possible to happen, pick up The Road to Jonestown and take a step back in time to see where Jim Jones, head of the Peoples Temple and mass murderer, originated.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.