Dan Barry's gifts lie in meting out the horror in small doses, though, never giving us more than we can handle, interweaving the hard stuff with moments of levity and grace. It would be easy to present a story such as this one in black-and-white terms, all villains and heroes, pain and redemption. Barry skillfully manages to resist this trap, painting the book's characters with all of the nuance and gradation of the human experience ... The prose itself is at times luminous; hard-hitting journalism shot through with flourishes of the best literary nonfiction.
“The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland clearly and engagingly explains the problems and constructs the arc of evolving public understanding of mental disabilities over that 30-year period. Barry’s narrative is gentle and respectful toward these men. Many were rejected or mistreated by their families, who turned them over to the state of Texas, which eventually passed them on to a labor broker.
It is a powerful story, weakened only slightly by the author’s sometimes clumsy attempts at folksiness ... Yet one can forgive Barry his stylistic shortcomings. As an exposé of a moral catastrophe, this is a vital piece of reportage. It stands alongside Gabriel Thompson’s book on the undocumented, Working in the Shadows, and bears comparison to recent reports on the exploitation of foreign laborers with temporary work visas.
The story exposes a truly shameful case of exploitation and dehumanization. But Barry sets it in the context of America’s changing attitudes toward those with special needs ... Barry weaves poignant stories of the men’s lives with the larger tale of society’s changing views and policies toward the intellectually disabled. The three dozen men Barry writes about are oblivious to those changes. It’s as if their world stopped in 1966 ... But the true revelatory power of the book comes as we get to know these men. To learn their names and their stories.