Official State of Iowa Website Here is how you know
State Historical Society of Iowa

Author Dan Barry to discuss Atalissa's Boys in the Bunkhouse March 30

Mar 9, 2017

DES MOINES - Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Dan Barry will visit Des Moines this month to speak about his new book about the harrowing yet uplifting story of intellectually disabled men who endured decades of exploitation in Atalissa, Iowa, before finding justice and freedom.

Barry, a reporter and columnist with the New York Times, will talk about "The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland" at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 30, at the State Historical Museum of Iowa, 600 E. Locust St. in Des Moines. The program, which is free and open to the public, is co-organized by the Iowa History Center at Simpson College and the State Historical Society of Iowa, whose state curator, Leo Landis, will lead a Q-and-A session after Barry's talk. More information is available at or 515-281-5111.

Published by HarperCollins, "The Boys in the Bunkhouse" dives deep into the lives of dozens of men, all with intellectual disabilities and all from Texas, who lived in squalor at an old schoolhouse in Atalissa. Before dawn, they were shuttled to a nearby processing plant, where they eviscerated turkeys in exchange for food, lodging and $65 a month. For more than 30 years they endured increasing neglect, exploitation, and physical and emotional abuse until they regained their freedom with help from a group led by social worker Natalie Neel-McGlaughlin, Des Moines Register reporter Clark Kauffman and Texas labor lawyer Robert Canino.

Drawing on exhaustive interviews with the men, Barry recounts their suffering, loneliness and fleeting joy, as well as the undying hope they maintained despite their traumatic circumstances. Barry also explores how a small Iowa town remained oblivious to the plight of these men, analyzes the many causes for such profound and chronic negligence, and lays out the impact of the men’s dramatic court case, which spurred advocates — including President Obama — to push for fair pay and better working conditions for people with disabilities.

The Atlantic magazine calls the new book "an important story about the horrors of slavery and exploitation," and it is nominated for both a 2017 Hillman Prize and a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

But it's just the latest achievement in Barry's career, which has won him numerous awards for both breaking news and human-interest reporting. He was part of The Providence Journal investigative team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for its series on the Rhode Island court system, and he was a Pulitzer finalist twice more, for his 2006 slice-of-life reports from hurricane-battered New Orleans and for his 2010 accounts of how the Great Recession has reshaped the lives and relationships of Americans nationwide.

In its "Boys in the Bunkhouse" review, Newsweek calls it "not just a book about the victims but also a book that turns those victims into real men. Dan Barry has written them into history as only a journalist could."

Dan Barry: "The Boys in the Bunkhouse"

  • When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 30. A pre-talk reception with drinks and refreshments begins at 5:30 p.m., and a book-signing will follow, around 7:45 p.m. Books will be available for purchase from Beaverdale Books.
  • Where: State Historical Museum of Iowa, 600 E. Locust St., Des Moines.
  • Admission: Free.

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and its three divisions – the Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa - State Office of Media Production and the State Historical Society of Iowa – empower Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. The department’s work enables Iowa to be recognized as a state that fosters creativity and serves as a catalyst for innovation where the stories of Iowa are preserved and communicated to connect past, present and future generations.