O n November 12, 1988, a group of Portland skinheads called East Side White Pride were hanging out near Laurelhurst Park when they encountered three Ethiopians talking in their car. Fueled by beer and unflinching racism, the skinheads proceeded to beat Mulugeta Seraw to death with a bat. It should be an easy issue to morally judge--an obvious, unprovoked hate crime committed by a bunch of skinheads with criminal records. But local author Elinor Langer isn't so sure. She devotes the first half of her 400-page book, A Hundred Little Hitlers, to sketching in the outlines of the generic skinhead image, searching their childhoods and subsequent lives in Portland, for the source of the monumental hate that would eventually end Sera's life.

The epic project (Langer spent 12 years researching and writing Little Hitlers) has received gallons of ink from the local press, which has been hailing it as the great liberator of a long-forgotten, yet still incredibly relevant issue. Few news outlets, however, have addressed the real meat of the matter: is the book good or not?

The answer depends on the reader. For those not inclined to court-room reporting, which comprises the second half of the book, the details of a pre-invigorated Portland running amuck with gangs like East Side White Pride are the most compelling. The bat-wielding Ken Mieske, better known then as Ken Death, was something of a local legend in the hardcore music scene, which had close ties to the Neo-Nazi movement. Back then Portland had only three music venues, yet sported a hardcore scene and Neo-Nazis; truth is frequently stranger than fiction.

Langer's writing often spills down the page like a stream of consciousness, a difficult pace to sustain for such a tome of densely compacted information. Her conclusions--that Mieske and his cronies were not fully culpable--feels like a stretch. A more compelling question raised by the book surrounds the underground racist current that caused the crime. How much or little have things changed in Portland in the last 15 years, and if our Neo-Nazi legacy has dissipated, to where might its energy have transferred? ANNA SIMON

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