Spoilers For: A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell
I recently finished reading A Trace of Smoke, a mystery by Rebecca Cantrell, in which the narrator, Hannah Vogel, faces a fascinating dilemma. Hannah’s brother has been murdered, and during the course of trying to find out whodunit, she uncovers a stash of love letters to her brother from Hitler’s best bud, Ernst Röhm. It’s 1931, Nazi power is on the rise, and now Hannah has the means to destroy one of the party’s most powerful members. The problem? She has to destroy him for the “crime” of loving her brother.
This is the classic “Do the ends justify the means?” dilemma, which I always find interesting, because I am not a hardliner on this old adage. I feel that sometimes the ends do justify the means, provided that the ends are necessary and the means bearable. So for me, each new combination of means and ends is, of course, different and interesting.
In this case, I think I could publish the letters for the purpose of bringing down Röhm. Or I could, at least, knowing what we know now about how history unfolded. But if I try to imagine myself in 1931, the question of what to do becomes a bit more murky. Picture yourself as a good German citizen in 1931. You’re appalled by the Nazi ideology and methods, but you don’t really have any idea yet of how bad things are going to get. Even if someone told you, you might not really believe it. Surely your country is going to walk itself back from this precipice. Surely you don’t have to betray your dead brother to make that happen.
And there’s another question to consider, which is that you are mucking about with a degree of power you really can’t control. If you try to take on Ernst Röhm, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe you bring him down, and the man who replaces him is even worse. Maybe you create a situation that becomes the catalyst for the Nazis to grab even more power. Maybe you bring a lot of notoriety upon other gays in Germany, and some of them wind up dead.
It would be tempting, considering these possibilities, to just walk away from the power you’ve accidentally acquired. To say to yourself, “I don’t have the wisdom to choose the right course. I can’t choose at all.” But that’s a false choice. Choosing not to choose is really just choosing not to act, and denying that you’re responsible for that choice. The power to choose is the responsibility to choose.
In a small way, the chocolate is like this. I recently learned that a significant chunk of the world’s chocolate is produced by slave labor—specifically, the slave labor of children. I learned this by reading Refuse To Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery, by Shayne Moore and Kimberly McOwen Yim. I had two fears when I began to read this book. The first was that it would tell me I had to stop buying something I rather like to buy (Fear realized!) And the second was that it would prompt me to take action that might end up hurting the people I intend to help.
Back in the nineties, Americans got very interested in the plight of children working in sweatshops in Southeast Asia. It began to be a big part of the public conversation, and many of us began to boycott companies, like Nike, that had significant amounts of their goods produced in sweatshops. We used our consumer power, and we made a difference. The sweatshops began closing.
And the rate of child prostitution in Southeast Asia soared.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that removing crappy jobs from an economy without replacing them with anything might lead people to seek even more desperate ways of keeping their families fed. But, that’s hindsight for you. It does not seem completely obvious to me what a widespread boycott of chocolate produced by child slaves might do. I know it would make those cocoa farmers poorer, and more desperate. I don’t know what the price of that desperation might be, but I’ll bet there will be one. And I don’t know who will wind up paying it.
The fact is, I don’t have the foresight to make this decision perfectly. But, the power to choose is the responsibility to choose.
So, for now I am buying only Fair Trade chocolate, or chocolate sourced from South America, where child slavery on cocoa farms is not a problem. In particular, I will be supporting Fair Trade products from major chocolate producers, like Hershey’s Bliss line and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars. These companies buy a ton of cocoa, and so what they do has the power to really impact the supply line. And I want to do what I can to show them the way I, as a consumer, would like them to behave.
Part of me feels like this is the easy choice, the one that makes me look, and feel, like a good person. But I have to accept that, although I lack the wisdom to see all the possible consequences of my actions, I still am responsible for making the best choice I can.
I do recommend A Trace of Smoke, although, sadly, I feel the author kind of punted on this oh-so-interesting dilemma. I still don’t know what Hannah Vogel would have done, if she had really forced herself to make the choice between dishonoring her brother’s lifestyle or letting a powerful Nazi continue to flourish. Note to authors: when your character is facing a difficult choice, never, never let them off the hook. After all, we seldom get to do that with ourselves.