Monday, May 24, 2021

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

What Jess Walter shows us in his 2020 novel The Cold Millions is that he is a wonderful story-teller, a fine historian, and like one of his characters guilty of “first-degree aggravated empathy.”

This lovely historical novel is on one hand simply a story of the love between two brothers, Gig and Rye Dolan who hop freight trains together, traveling from town to town and job to job. They are part of the cold millions, that is, the millions upon millions of workers who struggle day to day simply to live, while a few wealthy owners live lives of almost unfathomable wealth and luxury.

While Walter is quick to inform  us in his afterward that this is a book of fiction, he also makes it clear that some of his characters are based on real life people, one of whom, is “the great labor organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn”,  a key character in the book. Gurley is a mesmerizing and powerful speaker and organizer. Even the skeptics listen when she speaks.

Listen brothers and sisters, have we ever seen such trying times? She went through a list of outrages, fifteen-hour workdays and women dying at their sewing machine, men crushed in cave-ins while their families got nothing, copper kings and shipping magnates living like royalty while poor workers couldn’t even afford a flop bed, families in tents and hovels, workers given no rights and tossed aside when they were too broken or sick or old to work.

Clearly Walter shares the sense of outrage expressed by Flynn. He tells us that his own father was a union man. Gig, the older brother joins the IWW, although he discourages his brother Rye from getting involved. While Walter’s sympathies are clearly with the so-called Wobblies, he carries on a kind of debate regarding the efficacy of their non-violent methods. One character, Early Reston, clearly thinks non-violent methods will not work, and that rather than piecemeal reform the whole structure must be blown apart. At times in the book both Gig and Ryan become disenchanted with the methods of the IWW.

Rye felt demoralized. It didn’t matter what he did, what Gurley did, what Fred Moore did, what any of them did. Somewhere there was a roomful of wealthy old men where everything was decided. Beliefs and convictions, lives and livelihoods, right and wrong—these had no place in that room, the scurrying of ants at the feet of a few rich men.

It made me think that Early Reston was right, in his way ... that maybe it was the castle that needed to be blown up...

While it is clearly the struggles between owners and labor that is the focus of this novel, the side stories are also fascinating. The story of Ursula the Great, a performer who enters a cage with a full grown cougar, and then strips to near nudity as the crowd looks on partly horrified, partly titillated.  There is also a sweet tale of budding love Rye feels for Gurley, although she is married and pregnant, and nothing comes of it.

I much appreciated the argument Walter has with himself throughout the book regarding the possibility of real change and the methods that can achieve it. At one point when Rye is called out as one of the Wobblies by a salesman:

Rye didn’t answer. But at that moment, he felt done with it all—done with the beatings, done with Taft, done with Lem Brand and Ursula, done pretending they could stand on soapboxes and draw justice out of the air. Early was right. Rye didn’t believe in anything but a job, a bed, some soup. 

If you read this novel, be sure to leave some good reading energy for the acknowledgments and the short closing essay by Walter: “The Undercurrents of History”.  Walter talks of his own growing up in Spokane, Washington, and of how “The World came to me in books.”

With The Cold Millions, I set out to write about the sort of working-class Spokane family in which I had grown up. My dad’s father, a rancher named Jess Walter, first arrived in Eastern Washington on a train he’d hopped as a vagrant field-worker; my mother’s dad, Ralph, was an itinerant laborer in the 1930s who later died on a construction site when a crane fell on him. My own father, Alfa Bruce Walter, was a lifetime steelworker and union leader who worked almost forty years in an aluminum rolling mill.

For those readers who want to go to original historical sources, Walter provides an extensive list of his own sources in addition to his personal experience. For all who have labored, and for all who feel keenly the injustices of the world, this is a must read, and it is also a wonderful story.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Blood Grove by Walter Mosley

Easy Rawlins is a tough and hard-boiled as  any detective in the mystery genre. He has been asked by a Viet Nam vet to look into a possible murder in a southern California orange grove.

I would have turned him down out of hand if it weren’t for my understanding of the America I both love and loathe.

In America everything is about either race or money or some combination of the two., Who you are, what you have, what you look like, where your people came from, and what god looked over their breed--these were the most important questions. Added into that is the race of men and the race of women. The rich, famous, and powerful believe they have a race and the poor know for a fact that they do. The thing about it is that most people have more than one race. White people have Italian, Germans, Irish, Poles, English, Scots, Portuguese, Russian, old-world Spaniard, new-world rich, and many combination thereof. Black people have a color scheme from high yellow to moonless night, from octoroon to deepest Congo. And new-world Spanish have every nation from Mexico to Puerto Rico, from Columbia to Venezuela, each of which is a race of its own--not to mention the empires, from Aztec to Mayan to Olmec. 

I’m a black man closer to Mississippi midnight than its yellow moon. Also I’m a westerner, a Californian formerly from the South–Louisiana and Texas to be exact. I’m a father, a reader, a private detective, and a veteran.

In his most recent novel, Blood Grove, WalterMosley lets Easy describe the America of the 1960s in which a black detective is a rarity. In lieu of payment from a client, Easy is given a yearlong lease of a pale yellow, 1968 Rolls-Royce Phantom VI which will become his at the end of that year unless he is paid sixty thousand dollars. Since he has a written contract showing he has the right to drive such a fine car, he decides to drive into Beverly Hills. 

I had even made it a block or two past that when the flashing red lights appeared in the exta-wide rearview mirror. It was one of those wake-up calls that happen in the lives of black men and women in America when they mistakenly believe they have crossed over to freedom.

I pulled to the curb, put both hands on the steering wheel, and sat patiently awaiting the rendering of the calculation of my situation. That equation was a matter of simple addition: Rolls-Royce + black man without driver’s cap + any day of the century = stop and frisk, question and dominate—and, like the solution of pi, that process had the potential of going on forever.

The whole process took about half and hour. If I added up all the half hours the police, security forces, MPs, bureaucrats, bank tellers, and even gas station attendants had stolen from my life, I could make me a twelve-year-old boy versed in useless questions, meaningless insults, and spite as thick as black tar.

Although the story told in Blood Grove is a detailed and interesting one, what I find much more interesting is the social commentary Mosley provides along the way. Easy quickly garages the Rolls and borrows a plain blue car, knowing that the he will be unable to drive the Rolls to do his business without daily repeats of being pulled over and questioned or worse.

In this, his newest novel, Mosley adds an ingredient he had touched on in an earlier novel Little Green, his fasciation with counter-culture youth. 

Driving west down the Strip was slow going, but I liked the streets filled with hippies, head shops and discos. There was what they were calling a cultural revolution going on among the youth of America. They wanted to drop out and end the war, make love for its own sake, and forget the prejudices of the past. These long-haired, dope-smoking, often unemployed wanderers gave me insight into what my country, MY COUNTRY might be.. 

There is the usual cast of characters in this novel: Easy’s adopted children, Jesus and Feather, the dangerous best friend Raymond, called Mouse, who is usually called in to do the dirty work for Easy, a couple of good cops who help Easy obtain information and get him out of scrapes with the law. 

After many harrowing adventures, Easy helps the Viet Nam vet and solves the mystery, giving the reader his summation of Easy’s reflections on the state of the world. 

Nineteen sixty-nine was an interesting year. There was strong anti-war action from the colleges and universities and all kinds of black political insurgence. The sleeping giant of white guilt was awakening and there seemed to be some hope for the future. If you were innocent enough, or ignorant enough, you might have believed that things were improving in such a way that all Americans could expect a fair shake.

But of my many flaws, neither innocence nor ignorance played a part.

It seems to me that it is easier to describe and call out racial injustice as a writer of fiction than as a social scientist or reporter. Walter Mosley describes things as he sees them, and he does so with the direct experience of what it is like to be black and poor in America. He also understands how racism and sexism are connected, and he blows the whistle loudly and clearly. If you, like many readers I know, have read Devil in a Blue Dress, but not others of Mosley’s many novels, I recommend them all to you as wonderfully told stories and stark pieces of social commentary

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

I know next to nothing about circuses or aerialists, but reading Pam Jenoff’s fascinating novel, The Orphan’s Tale has me wanting to know lots more about both. This novel is about two women who, for very different reasons are on the run during WWII. Noa is a young woman whose parents have kicked her out of her home because of an unwed pregnancy. 

The girls’ home where I lived after my parents found out I was expecting and kicked me out had been located far from anywhere in the name of discretion and they could have dropped me off in Mainz, or at least the nearest town. They simply opened the door, though, dismissing me on foot. I’d headed to the train station before realizing that I had nowhere to go.

When her very non-Aryan son is born with dark eyes and olive skin, she is not allowed even to hold him, before he is whisked away. Working as a cleaner in the railway station, she lives in a tiny storage room. One night she hears a sound coming from a boxcar. “The sound continues to grow, almost a keening now, like a wounded animal in the brush.” When she slides the door of the boxcar open, “There are babies, tiny bodies too many to count, lying on the hay-covered floor of the railcar, packed close and atop one another. Most do not move and I can’t tell whether they are dead or sleeping” But one baby has woven booties on and on impulse, she grabs the now crying baby and takes it to the little storage closet where she sleeps. Once she realizes there is no way she can keep the child and still do her job, she runs away with it.

The second woman, Astrid, is Jewish and comes from a circus family. She is married to German officer who turns her out to save his career. Although her family circus is no longer together and, for all she knows, has been arrested or killed by the Nazis, another circus shelters her and takes her on as an aerialist, a trapeze artist. 

Noa stumbles onto the circus as she runs from the police, and she, too, is taken in by the kind circus owner, both she and her stolen baby given shelter. The two women with such completely different backgrounds start a relationship that begins in hostility but blossoms over time into a wonderful friendship.

I will not give away much more of the story here except to say that Astrid trains Noa to become an aerialist and both travel by rail with the circus into Nazi occupied France. As we learn from the author in her afterward remarks, the kernel of the novel begins from her reading two stories, one about a boxcar full of babies, “ripped from their families and headed for a concentration camp, too young to know their own names,” the Unknown Children. And the second about a German circus that sheltered Jews during the war. 

The author obviously researched extensively about circuses in general and about The Circus Althoff in particular. The reader is treated to long descriptions of how the circus travels from town to town, set up from scratch at each location. We readers are also given hair-raising descriptions of how the aerialists perform protected only by their skill and very inadequate nets. 

While it is obvious that author Jenoff mainly wants to tell the story of how Jews were sheltered by German circuses, she develops her characters carefully and fully so the story, itself, is fascinating quite aside from its political and moral messages.

I am told by reader friends that there is a large circus community in Portland, and I find myself driven to learn more about the history of circuses and aerialists. This is love story of the very best sort; it is heartwarming and frightening in equal measures. Although a fairly long novel, I predict that most readers will read it in a sitting or two. Once started it is hard to put down.