Review: Joe Hill

Joe HillJoe Hill, Wallace Stegner. New York: Penguin Books, 1990 (Originally published under the title The Preacher and the Slave, 1950).

Summary: Wallace Stegner describes this as a “biographical novel” and in it, he fills out the enigmatic life and death of labor organizer and songwriter, Joe Hill, who was executed for murder before a Utah firing squad in November 1915.

Maybe you have heard of Joe Hill from the poem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” by Alfred Hayes set to music by Earl Robinson, and performed at Woodstock by Joan Baez, and a range of singers from Pete Seeger to Bruce Springsteen. Hill (also known as Joseph Hillstrom) was a Swedish laborer who emigrated to the U.S., traveling across country from New York to the West Coast and serving as an organizer and songwriter for the International Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the “Wobblies” or the “One Big Union.” He ended up in Utah in 1913, was accused and tried for the murder of a store owner and his son in a robbery attempt by two men in Salt Lake City. One of the two men was wounded. The same night Hill sought treatment for a gunshot wound that he claimed he received in a quarrel over a woman. He never revealed the name of the woman, and was found guilty, and despite efforts that went all the way to the Supreme Court and the President, was executed in November 1915 by firing squad. Among his last words were these:

“Don’t waste time mourning. Organize.” (in a telegram to labor leader Bill Haywood)

Wallace Stegner fleshes out the bare outlines of Hill’s story in this “biographical novel” that explores this enigmatic character, who wrote IWW’s songbook, traveled from town to town hopping trains, and escaping scrapes with goons shutting down labor rallies. He picks up the story in San Pedro where Hill is a dock worker. Much of Joe’s character is explored through the eyes of Gus Lund, a Lutheran mission pastor, who Hill often visited late at night, and who is present with Hill on his last night and at his execution. What emerges is a gifted musician and songwriter, a shadowy figure who skirts the edges of the law and of violence, a selfless organizer for the IWW who will accept no money, and one who views the capitalist system with cynicism, perhaps born of being the bastard son of a Swedish capitalist.

Perhaps the most striking scenes are in a farm labor camp where a labor rally turns ugly, resulting in the death of Joe’s fellow-organizer Art Manderich. We see the substandard housing and primitive sanitary facilities that created the conditions for disease and disability among workers and their families.

Nearly half of the novel is devoted to Hill’s last years in Utah, his humiliation in a music store when he tries to get a love song published, his arrest, his unwillingness to produce his alibi and stubborn insistence upon a new trial. And indeed, the eyewitnesses were unsure of their identification and there were other irregularities in the trial. Hill is portrayed as a martyr for labor. We are never quite sure whether Joe is really protecting the woman over whom he was reputedly wounded, his fellow traveler Otto Applequist, who had his own shadowy pastimes, or whether he really committed the murder but thought the apparent injustice of his execution would better serve the labor cause.

My impression was that Joe Hill was driven by a restless, never in life to be satisfied, anger. Was it really against the capitalist system, or did this personify his capitalist father? What we do know is that he died angry, crying out as his executioners prepared to fire:

“Fire — go on and fire!”

Review: A Shooting Star

shooting starSabrina Castro is the wealthy and attractive wife of a Pasadena physician and also the offspring of a transplanted New England family that found wealth but never a sense of purpose. Life begins to unravel for Sabrina after twelve years of childless marriage as a “trophy” wife when she takes a vacation in Mexico and has an affair with a married man.
Torn between her New England family rectitude and her frustrations, she confesses her affair and yet refuses to utterly break it off, until she sees the other husband for who he is, one who won’t sacrifice his family but wants a bit of something “on the side”. Meanwhile the marriage continues to unravel and with this, Sabrina’s life as she goes on an alcoholic binge, ends up sheltering in the home of a Tahoe dog-boarder, and finally comes home to her mother’s house and the conflicts within her own family.

Underneath it all is the emptiness of Sabrina’s life, rich, and idle, barren (until she discovers she is pregnant by the errant husband) and purposeless. She reconnects with her good friend, Barbara and her husband Leonard, who have worked their way up from poverty to respectable middle-class life in a new suburban community nearby. The book title comes from an evening spent with this family watching a meteor shower and seems a kind of metaphor for the question of her life–will she spectacularly flame out and fade?

The story moves between discovery and despair as she grope to re-establish some kind of relationship with her aging mother separated from her husband early in the marriage, her ambitious brother who would turn the family land into a subdivision of tract homes, and her husband with whom she fails to reconcile. The story reaches a climax on the night Barbara gives birth, Sabrina sits her other children, and Leonard comes home to a drunken and distraught Sabrina. I will leave it to the reader to discover whether Sabrina flames out or survives and what this means for those around her.

The story, set in the late 1950s, explores the discontents of those who have achieved the American dream yet found it wanting. At another level, Stegner as a writer of “place”, explores the changing landscape driven by car culture with its attendant freeways, suburban sprawl, growing pollution, and the destruction of natural habitats to make way for tract homes. While this latter element is in the backdrop, it also reveals the illusions and follies of the American dream and its inability to give us either good purposes or good places.

May 2014: The Month in Reviews

It was a rich and varied month of reading–everything from a long history of genocide to a reflective book on a one sentence prayer. I read primary source accounts of the beginning of the Atomic age and a collection of essays on the challenging theological question of “holy war” in the Bible. There was a book on 19th century efforts to reconcile faith and science, and the cutting edge 21st century science of genomics and its challenges to faith and ethics. I explored a full length memoir of growing up in southern Saskatchewan, a full-length biography of the “little woman that started this great war [the Civil War]”, and a delightful collection of short stories by a Bengali Indian writer. So, here is the month in reviews, with each of the links taking you to the full review of the book:

1. God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America, by Walter H. Conser, Jr. The title summarizes the book in many ways, exploring how 19th century theologians grappled, even before Darwin, with discoveries that called into question interpretations of the Bible.

2. The Manhatten Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians, ed. by Cynthia C. Kelly. The immediacy of these accounts combined with the skillful editing that fashions these into a seamless narrative makes this a compelling read of the beginning of the nuclear age.

3. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power.  From the story of Rafael Lemkin who gave us the word “genocide” to the tragedy of Rwanda, and our first real steps to intervene in the Balkans, Power tells a story of America’s studied avoidance for the most part, of using its power to prevent genocide, even while piously saving “never again” after the Holocaust.

god and natural worldmanhatten projectproblem from hellexcellence in preaching4. Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers, by Simon Vibert. I appreciated both the concept and conclusions of this book but felt it was marred by its exclusive use of white, Anglo male models. Is excellence in preaching really limited to this demographic? I think not.

5. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life, by Nancy Koester. Stowe did far more than just write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was a pioneer among women authors, the daughter and spouse of New School Calvinist pastors who moved away from these theological roots while not moving away from Christ, and contributed far more to the abolition of slavery than simply her novel. An outstanding biography.

6. Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream, by Suzanne Mettler. Mettler argues that in the field of higher education as in the wider society, our education policies and our failure to maintain policies offering affordable access to all, are creating a new educated elite while excluding many from the lower classes of society.

holy warlive speed lightdegreesstowe

7. Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, by J. Craig Venter. Venter was the leader of one of two teams (Francis Collins led the other) who sequenced the human genome. In this book, Venter talks about what he and other genetic researchers have been doing since, particularly in developing our capacities to synthesize DNA and the ways they’ve applied this research.

8. Holy War in the Bible, ed. by Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan.  This book represents the proceedings from a conference on this issue and is organized around essays representing six different approaches to the question of how we deal with war in the Bible. Probably the most thorough-going treatment on this issue I’ve read.

9. The Jesus Prayer, by John Michael Talbot. This little booklet reflects word by word on the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). A book at once theologically rich, devotionally nurturing, and ecumenically written.

jesus prayerwolf willowinterpreter of maladies

10. Wolf Willow, by Wallace Stegner. This is Stegner’s memoir of the settlement of south Saskatchewan in the area of the Cypress Hills and his own boyhood. He punctuates this with a riveting, fictional account of the struggle of cowboys to survive the winter of 1906, that devastated the herds and nearly took their lives.

11. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. This Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories by Bengali Indian Lahiri explores the intersection of traditional Bengali values with modernity, particularly in negotiating the immigrant experience. A number of the stories are set in Boston, where Lahiri was educated.

David Brooks, in a recent op-ed in The New York Times made this observation about what books can and cannot do in our lives:

I suppose at the end of these bookish columns, I should tell you what I think books can’t do. They can’t carve your convictions about the world. Only life can do that — only relationships, struggle, love, play and work. Books can give you vocabularies and frameworks to help you understand and decide, but life provides exactly the education you need.

That’s what I felt these books do in my life. It’s my hope that one or more might do the same for you!


Review: Wolf Willow

Wolf Willow
Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wolf Willow is a personal memoir by Wallace Stegner, whose fiction and non-fiction writings capture a deep sense of the western places he called home during the early part of his life. The book takes its title from a willow particular to the Cypress Hills, the area of southern Saskatchewan where Stegner spent part of his early years. Unlike many memoirists and fiction writers from small, rural towns, Stegner writes not as one who was cynical and embitterered by the experience. Rather, he recognizes the conditions of the place, physical and otherwise, that shaped both the strengths and the limitations of its people.

Wallace Stegner (c)1969, Paul Conklin

Wallace Stegner (c)1969, Paul Conklin

The first part of the book chronicles the period before the town he lived in, Whitemud, was settled. He gives us deeply evocative descriptions of the topography of the place, the peoples native to the area, and the defining event of drawing the national boundary between the US and Canada along the 49th parallel (called the Medicine line). We learn of the different tribes, the metis, who were half-breed traders, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who pacified the area in a very different way than the American Cavalry and the transition from buffalo to cattle herds.

The middle section of the book does something novel for a memoir. Stegner inserts a fictional account of the terrible winter of 1906, that more or less marked the end of cattle ranching. The account is absolutely riveting, the majority of which is narrated by a greenhorn cowboy who joins up to herd the cattle through the winter. As the terrible cold and blizzards set in we see the gradual transition from trying to save the herd to physical survival of the men.

The final part of the book chronicles the settling of Whitemud after this terrible winter, and the attempts at turning the area into an agricultural Eden. In the end, Stegner’s family fails to do so, as did many others as they slammed up against the hard reality of insufficient rainfall west of the 100th meridian where their land was located.

In the epilogue, we are reminded that the book began with a return visit to Whitemud by Stegner. We see a remarkable portrait of town father Corky Jones, and the strengths and struggles and limits of this rural community. And we see Stegner’s appreciation for how this community shaped him, even though he and his family couldn’t remain.

This book is one more reason I consider Stegner as one of this country’s great writers of “place”, along with Wendell Berry. Most of us just live in places. What both Stegner and Berry do is help us understand places and how they help shape the lives of the people in those places, perhaps challenging us to begin to notice our own places and how they shape us.

View all my reviews