Fall Books '97
Words to live by
A triumphant tale of Wobblies in the Wild West
By PHIL CONNORS
J. Anthony Lukas
Simon & Schuster
A mesmerizing and panoramic narrative which explores class conflict and labor tensions in Idaho from 1899 to 1907, Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets off a Struggle for the Soul of America opens with a scene that, at first, seems to belie the book's title.
It's Saturday, Dec. 30, 1905, and Idaho's ex-governor Frank Steunenberg is taking a stroll down a quiet street in Caldwell, a southern Idaho town recently arisen from the high alkali desert. Steunenberg has retired from politics to help his brothers run a bank. Through his eyes author J. Anthony Lukas offers a brief history of Caldwell, a bustling little burg owing its existence to the railway.
The town's optimism and self-satisfaction are abruptly shattered, though, when the first record- ed assassination-by-dynamite in America tears Steunenberg to shreds.
Thus begins the frenzied drama at the heart of this book.
Suspicions swirl like prairie fire. Detectives swarm over the town. Steunenberg's brothers vow bloody revenge. The famed Pinkerton Detective Agency is ultimately awarded control over the investigation. In the meantime, an astounding array of historic figures -- from union celebrities like Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair to the famed psychologist Hugo Munsterberg, the actress Ethel Barrymore and President Teddy Roosevelt -- make appearances.
The trial of Big Bill Haywood, a famous socialist agitator and founder of the Wobblies, forms the centerpiece of this ambitious book. With the Haywood trial acting as a flash point, Lukas seeks to make sense of nearly a century of American politics through a window less than a decade long.
And he succeeds largely because of his encylopedic examination of a huge number of elements related to the story -- ranging from the minor league baseball teams playing in Idaho, to an attempt to use the all-black 24th Regiment to keep the unions at bay.
To this day, there remains some debate over whether Haywood and his alleged co-conspirators in the Western Federation of Miners were responsible for the death of Steunenberg. But the case itself -- represented by Clarence Darrow, perhaps the most famous lawyer of his time -- clearly galvinized the author's concerns over the role of justice and class in the American West.
As the story unfolds, James McParland, a Pinkerton with a reputation for cracking cases, bores in on a miner named Harry Orchard, whose hotel room contains traces of the elements used to construct the fatal bomb. Under relentless -- and likely coercive -- questioning, Orchard confesses that he was the agent of a plot orchestrated by the Western Federation of Miners in retaliation for Steunenberg's betrayal of labor interests while governor.
In a 64-page confession (co-authored by McParland), Orchard admits to committing 17 murders in addition to Steunenberg's; in turn, McParland, famous at that point for infiltrating and destroy- ing the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania, senses an opportunity to destroy unionism in the West.
Most damning to the movement are Orchard's claims that the murderous conspiracy was hatched by three men at the highest levels of the WFM: Haywood, WFM president Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone, a former WFM member. "In making my investigation," McParland wrote, "I have unearthed the bloodiest crowd of anarchists that ever existed, I think, in the civilized world, not even excepting Russia."
Unfortunately for McParland, not one of the accused were in Idaho at the time of the murder. To face trial they had to be extradited from their homes in Colorado; but to be lawfully extradited the men were required by the Constitution to have been fugitives from justice in the state where the crime took place. So, in one of the book's great scenes, the detective kidnaps the labor leaders, whisks them onto a waiting train, and transports them to Idaho.
At points, Lukas allows lengthy departures from the main narrative thread to color and amplify this already complex story. The author explores the cult of the private detectives in America, the growth and prevalence of fraternal organizations, unionism, socialism and radicalism. He also takes time to look at press biases of the period, the ongoing sway of extractive resource industries and the evolution of the Forest Service.
But some of Lukas's deviations, compelling as they are, carry on too long. As the trial's climax nears, discussions of the history of the American theater or details of the Weiser, Idaho, minor league baseball team, simply detract. Still, Lukas's curiosity is so boundless and his attention to detail so keen, that I am compelled to forgive his prolixity.
Lukas is a gifted writer, but he is at his best when he lets the principals speak for themselves with all the ardor they felt at the moment. Such is the case when he presents the closing argument of the fearsome defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who has come all the way from Chicago to represent Haywood:
"I want to say to you gentleman of the jury, you Idaho farmers, removed from the trade unions, removed from the men who work in industrial affairs, I want to say to you that had it not been for the trade unions of the world you today would be serfs instead of free men...
"If you should decree Bill Haywood's death, in the railroad offices of our great cities men will applaud your names. If you decree his death, amongst the spiders of Wall Street will go up paeans of praise for these twelve good men and true. In every bank in the world, where men hate Haywood because he fights for the poor and against the accursed system upon which the favored live and grow rich and fat -- from all those you will receive blessing and unstinted praise."
It's evident through-out the book that he hopes readers will side with social agitators -- as the jury eventually did with Haywood -- writers included. Ultimately, as Lukas writes in his introduction, the author hopes this volume "illuminates the class question at a time when the gap between our richest and poorest citizens grows ever wider."
Whether Lukas has achieved that lofty goal can be argued, but there is no doubt he has expertly evoked the raging passions of an era when economic equality was an ideal people still fought, died, and even killed for. Of all the tragedy contained within this book, however, perhaps the greatest of all lies outside its pages. This spring, before the book was published, Lukas committed suicide at the age of 66.
We are richer for his final work and poorer for his absence.
In good taste, or why I eat bugs
By IAN FRAZIER
When I was growing up, decades ago in northern Ohio, you didn't experiment too much with what you ate. You had your peanut butter and jelly and your meat and potatoes, and that was about it. I didn't even have pizza until I was 14.
A year or two later, my cousins moved to a fancy Connecticut suburb of New York City and at Christmas sent back sophisticated presents from the East. For me, my aunt chose an assortment of gourmet snacks I'd never seen before, including a box of chocolate-covered ants and bees. They came in cubes of chocolate wrapped in red foil or silver foil, depending on the insects inside.
I waited awhile before giving them a try. I didn't even know for sure if I was really supposed to. It was an unusual present for a grown-up relative to give. But I was a teenager, and the time the 1960s, and the unusual seemed to be happening everyday. So what the heck -- the taste was chocolate, mainly, with a chitinous crunch to it and a slight bitterness underneath. The important lesson I learned was that you can eat quite a lot of ants and bees and still be fine.
Like many discoveries of the '60s, this one had been made before. Throughout history, we humans have eaten bugs. Although they have been out of fashion in our recipes for a while now, that wasn't always so. Archeologists who study diet in pre-Columbian America say that in parts of the West at certain times of year, grasshoppers appear to have been staple food. The terrifying dark clouds of hoppers that descend on Western farms may have meant breakfast in earlier times....
Then of course there's the insect-eating in the Bible. The dietary laws in the Old Testament book of Leviticus list as foods forbidden not only the rabbit and the pig, but also such unlikely table fare as the osprey, the pelican and the weasel. "Flying, creeping things," i.e. insects, are also generally unclean and forbidden. But a single verse makes these exceptions: "Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind." As loopholes go, that's pretty good-sized; it suggests that the lawgiver was responding to a real demand.
The most famous wilderness dweller of the Bible, John the Baptist, dressed in animal skins as he wandered about preaching the coming of the Messiah. His food, we are told, was locust and wild honey. The wild honey is not a surprise, but note his choice of meat. Even living off the land, John the Baptist kept kosher -- a wild man, but still a good Jewish boy.
This piece is excerpted with the author's permission from "It's Hard to Eat Just One," originally published in Outside (April, 1997). Frazier will discuss entomophagy -- bug-eating, that is -- at the 5th annual Montana Natural History Center dinner and auction, Saturday, Nov. 15, beginning at 5 p.m.
The highs and lows of taking risks at altitude
By NICK HEIL
|Into Thin Air
|The Measure of a Mountain
Mountaineering's acute grip on America's imagination has yet to relax since an ill-fated adventure claimed nine lives from four expeditions in a 48-hour period on Mount Everest in May of 1996.
Slick images of rock and alpine climbing continue to bleed, meanwhile, into marketing campaigns for everything from automobiles to life insurance. Into Thin Air, Seattle climber and writer Jon Krakauer's memoir of the Everest tragedy, of which he was an integral part, remains ensconced on The New York Times' Bestseller List. The story was also featured in a recent ABC Sunday Night Movie, and at least one Hollywood studio has a more elaborate (and expensive) version in development.
In a perfect world, such fervor would lead public attention to another outstanding book from another Seattle writer Bruce Barcott, whose The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier is an elegant, occasionally humorous portrait of the Pacific Northwest's most conspicuous volcano.
The authors differ radically in their zeal for mountaineering, but share at least one trait in common: a profound, nearly obsessive love of mountains and their iron hold on our curiosity.
For Krakauer, what started as a somewhat innocuous proposal from the editors of Outside magazine -- go hang out at Everest base camp and report on the findings -- wound up a harrowing mountaineering disaster. Into Thin Air elaborates on the now-familiar story, presenting a blow-by-blow account of Krakauer's expedition, during which three team members died. Two Americans from another expedition were also killed. The final tally of lives taken that day wouldn't stop until it claimed three members of an Indian expedition as well.
The number of casualties on Everest in May, 1996 wound up the single highest since people began sport climbing the mythic mountain. The author is also able to frame the story in the larger context of the history of Everest expeditions, the tragedies and triumphs, the famous mountaineers and the fools.
Further, Krakauer delves into the evolving popularity of climbing the mountain and the rise of the guided climb, certainly the center of controversy surrounding the calamity. Into Thin Air is remarkable not only for its literary chops, but the author's astute sense of market forces on one of our riskiest endeavors.
If Into Thin Air is mountain literature's tempest, The Measure of a Mountain is its template. With monkish reverence and admitted skepticism, Barcott -- a novice climber -- sets out to put the pinnacle of the Cascade range under a microscope. To facilitate week-long investigative trips to Rainier, Barcott quits his job, camps out in the back of his station wagon, gets chummy with climbing guides, botanists, geologists and old timers, circumnavigates the base of the mountain and eventually climbs to the top.
The result is a kind of literary cartography -- an eloquent topographic map of Rainier's history, geology, sociology and raw mystical allure. Unlike a good portion of outdoor lit, Barcott takes a self-effacing approach to his research. Forays onto the mountain are marred by uncomfortable boots, the crushing weight of his backpack, the coast's ceaseless rain and the author's general lack of stamina.
He is the first to admit that the unprepared have no business in such an environment, and doesn't sugarcoat his opinion that climbing mountains on a regular basis is just plain absurd. In an attempt to further understand the climber's mindset, he turns to their stories. But after months ingesting the mountaineering cannon, Barcott arrives at an inevitable summation:
"I closed my books not with a heightened respect for the high peaks and the people who climb them, but with a peculiar kind of sadness. The ever more extreme lengths to which [Reinhold] Messner et al. must go to challenge the mountains only drive home the realization that in the postindustrial world, nature has lost most of its mystery and danger."
Nonetheless, Barcott eventually purchases a spot on a guided climb to the top of Rainier. Ironically, the author's own desire to understand the mountain that dominates views from all over urban Seattle begins to take on the very kind of irrationality he puzzles over in other, more seasoned climbers.
"I toyed with the idea of intentionally not climbing," he writes, "of standing against the broad-chested culture in which the proving of one's cajones was a full-time job and whose heroes tended to be, in a word, deadS Still, there remained the summit, the only part of the mountain I didn't know."
Perhaps Barcott's final decision to climb is partially justified by the book he was writing, but by the end of his story another, far more profound reason becomes clear, one that correlates well with Krakauer's observations.
That relatively inexperienced climbers can buy their way to the top of Everest is a troubling idea Krakauer unapologetically addresses. From the cavalier claims of guide Scot Fischer ("We've got the big E figured out, we've got it totally wired. These days, I'm telling you, we've built a yellow brick road to the summit") to reservations about the climbing ability of his own teammates, the author reveals how it was not one major mishap that lead to tragedy, but a serious of minor ones.
The most heart-wrenching moment during the Everest disaster is the phone call, patched in by satellite, between the stranded and dying Rob Hall and his pregnant wife. Transcripts of their brief conversation allowed the world to eavesdrop on that moment, where two humans exchanged what they knew would be their last words to each other, and it illustrated the sanctity of that fragile and invaluable connection.
When Barcott descends Rainier, his first and strongest impulse is to clutch his father, who had also been on the climb, and gush his happiness at seeing him -- a gesture which speaks volumes. In our commercialized, misdirected, disconnected and spiritually ailing lives, scrambling alone up an icy, cold, dark and potentially deadly mountain peak has the rare power to remind us of, even realign us with, simple truths and basic needs.
What else could be more worth putting ourselves at risk?
A Canadian novelist takes on the American West
By LISABETH C. KIRK
The Englishman's Boy
While it won the 1996 Governor General's Award -- one of Canada's top literary prizes -- I had reservations about The Englishman's Boy by Saskatoon-based novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe.
From the outset, the book looked to be just another rehash of frontier heroism and drama. I was grateful to discover that, although Vanderhaeghe's novel does address well-worn Western themes, it does so in a fresh and innovative style that exposes a different conception of the predominant mythos defining America's self-image.
Vanderhaeghe uses 1920s Hollywood as a stepping off point for his confrontation of Western myths. In turn, the writer deconstructs common assumptions by telling his story through the eyes of a small group of Hollywood filmmakers working on an authentic Western. Switching primarily between two narratives -- including that of a young Canadian script writer -- Vanderhaeghe creates a palpable tension between what actually occurred, and how Hollywood and the media at large have recreated history to portray fictional images that have mass appeal.
The author thus exposes truths laying beneath the literal and figurative manipulation of a harsh and violent frontier which has been transformed into an ideal of independence, bravery and heroism. By exploring the making of American myth, in turn, Vanderhaeghe offers intriguing historical and personal perspectives.
The language and imagery in the book, meanwhile, convey the stark violence of the times without glorification. Stridently resisting nostalgia, Vanderhaeghe describes frontiersmen shooting down buffalo from their steamboat, as well as the raw deaths of both the blood-thirsty cowboys and the Indians they gun down.
Adding to the book's apparent reality, Vanderhaeghe mixes in a host of derelict cowboys -- starving Hollywood extras who, if they are lucky, will be immortalized on film as the heroic men struggling to survive. The Englishman's Boy also gains historic depth through the connections Vanderhaeghe makes between the Holocaust and the American Indian genocide.
At times, unfortunately, Vanderhaeghe dips too far into the thesaurus with characters prevaricating outside saloons and punctiliously shaking hands in a way that brings attention to the language. Additional problems stem from stylized and unoriginal descriptions of minor characters, such as the moronic farm hand and the crazy Scotsman.
And, like many Westerns before it, The Englishman's Boy is set on a fairly stereotypical frontier, featuring rough and tumble men, with a hostage Indian, a crazy mother and a beautiful script-writer being the only featured females in the cast.
When the plot comes to a head with a shooting battle towards the end, it's not entirely apparent that this was not how the West was won. Such criticism is overcome, however, by the high-wire act Vanderhaeghe attains by balancing his disparate narratives as each character is driven to his irrevocable end.
As these stories expand one upon another, they establish an original examination of the West's historical interpretation and its morality. The glitz of Tinseltown and the grit of an undefined and violent frontier further underline the moral ambiguities of both worlds. In the end, despite of its "Western" packaging, The Englishman's Boy is definitely worth the read.