Book Review
The Courage to Survive
by Dennis J. Kucinich
Phoenix Books•2007•322 pages•$25.95•hardcover

Reviewed by Meryl Ann Butler and Gail Davis

When Congressman Dennis Kucinich appeared on The Tonight Show in September, Jay Leno said he had just read The Courage to Survive and loved it. Leno’s uncharacteristic expression of deep reverence spoke louder than his words. Within the pages of Kucinich’s book, Leno caught a moving glimpse into the early life that shaped the man seated beside him.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, the eldest of seven children, Kucinich and his siblings lived in 21 places – including a couple of cars and an orphanage– by the time he left home at the age of 17. Without a hint of victimization, he writes a mesmerizing account of a childhood filled with a smorgasbord of violence and poverty, and tells how he held onto the few glimmers of hope that helped him survive. His environment was punctuated with death, suicide, theft, traumatic illness, alcohol, and guns. But through his youthful faith and courage, he transformed his formative years from stumbling blocks into stepping stones, and emerged as a public servant brimming with optimism and altruism.

Kucinich writes about a brief but idyllic period his family spent on his aunt and uncle’s farm in a small village in Eastern Michigan. Enjoying many long walks in the woods, he delighted in observing the little polliwogs in the brook as they grew into carefree frogs. The early childhood joy he experienced in nature gives readers insight into the making of the compassionate legislator he will become; one whose holistic world view is based on his awareness of the interconnectedness of all living things. While health challenges are what ultimately led Kucinich to adopt a totally plant-based diet, becoming vegan deepened his understanding of the suffering of both animals and humans. His sincere desire to reduce this suffering is evidenced by his 100% positive Congressional voting record on animal rights and environmental issues and his vision for creating a more sustainable and peaceful world.

This is not the first time Kucinich has penned his life story. As a high school sophomore, he wrote a foretelling autobiography for a class assignment. In it he said that he wanted to pursue a career in politics, one modeled after that of John F. Kennedy. “I’m going to aim for the top,” he wrote, and then added the word, “very” before the word, “top.” With a genuine empathy for the struggles faced by millions of American families that comes from his own early experiences, he became the kind of political leader who authors legislation that would provide health care for all, and make war and domestic violence a thing of the past. With such lofty aspirations, clearly, he is still aiming for the “very top.”

Refreshingly honest and matter-of-fact, The Courage to Survive is a sobering, yet inspiring look at growing up on the outside of the American Dream, looking in – and how one young boy found his way to the other side.