‘Butler’ is powerful


Published: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 3:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 3:27 p.m.

Your boss is a very powerful person.

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“The Butler: A Witness to History” by Wil Haygood, c. 2013, Atria (37Ink), $18, 97 pages. (Special to the Guardian)

When things need doing, he makes sure they're done. She knows people, knows when to act and when to be patient and how to get the best from her employees. He's a class act. Everybody wants to work with her.

Yes, your boss is powerful, but Eugene Allen had you beat.

Over the course of 34 years, he worked for eight of the most powerful men in the free world. In "The Butler: A Witness to History" by Wil Haygood, you will read about Allen's history-making job.

In the middle of 2008, long before Democratic candidates for office were decided, Wil Haygood says that he "knew" Barack Obama would be the next president, which got him to thinking. Haygood decided to find someone for whom all the historical events of the past 60 years had meant something. He wanted to find a black man or woman who'd worked in the White House.

His search led him to eighty-nine-year-old Eugene Allen.

Born some five decades after the end of slavery, Allen grew up working in a white family's kitchen. There, he learned the fine art of table-setting and dish-washing, which served him well: During the Depression, when jobs were scarce, Allen landed a position at a Washington D.C. Country Club.

For 34 years while at the White House, Allen worked his way from pantry to parlor. He met (and kept secrets for) world leaders and influential people. And in 2008, Eugene Allen did what he never before thought possible: He voted for an African-American president.

In his foreword to "The Butler," the story that begat the movie, director Lee Daniels says his movie's title character is "fictionalized."

The real Eugene Allen lived nearly a stones' throw away from his former place of employment. Author Wil Haygood got to know the man he frequently calls "the butler" and was obviously fascinated at the backstory to the job Allen did.

"He was both a witness to history and unknown to it," says Haygood as he puts Allen's life in perspective for his readers. As that part of this book – and the friendship the men shared – unfolds, it's hard not to feel a little awe-struck at the history Allen witnessed and his humility for doing it.

At just under 100 pages, it will take you about as long to read this book as it will to see the movie – and read it, you should. That's because, for movie buffs and historians, "The Butler" is one very powerful book.

Terri Schlichenmeyer never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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