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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Between things, also known as thumb-twiddling

So last week I sent back the answers to copy-editing questions on the manuscript for Detroit: A Biography, and am now awaiting the arrival of some photos to pass along to the designers at Chicago Review Press as they move onto laying out the book. Next up: Page proofs, where I get to see what the book will look like when it comes out.

Meanwhile, when not teaching and writing freelance pieces, I've been looking around for the next project, which is both fun and vexing. The fun is obvious - I spend time diving down rabbit holes in search of something that will fascinate me enough to devote large chunks of the foreseeable future, and that will fascinate enough of you to attract a publisher.

There, as the saying goes, lies the rub. And the vexation. I dug into one story that I loved, about a collection of some two dozen European displaced persons who, in the years after WWII, slipped out of the Soviet-occupied Baltics to Sweden, worked to pool their money, bought a small sailing ship and then, with only the captain and one other person having ever spent any time at sea, sailed to America using a sextant and a wristwatch. Great story; minimal historic record from which to craft a narrative. Next.

I looked at the searing drought in Texas, and the parallels to the Dust Bowl years, tipped to the idea by a New York Times piece. Alas, the parallels weren't quite so parallel. Next.

I still have hopes that a narrative can be built out of a story about the collapse of a single bank in the Great Depression, but again, finding sufficient and specific historical records from which to build a human narrative is proving to be elusive. Next.

I looked at a rural suicide in the midst of the Great Recession: Too depressing, I was told. Few readers would buy a book about that. I thought about a book exploring how our near-religious quest as a society for the lowest possible price was cheap-skating ourselves out of economic existence (the money we save as consumers means domestic jobs lost, which means less money spent to push the economy, in a vicious downward cycle). No traction there, either. Spent last night exploring the birth of the first transcontinental telegraph, which in many ways also signaled the birth of modern America. Nice, my wife said, but where's the drama? Where, indeed.

So, next? Wish I knew. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I see a couple of rabbit holes over there that need some exploring....


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Progress on Detroit - the book, not the city

We're at that crucial stage of book production - editing and copy editing - which is both grueling and fun. Grueling because a couple of sharp-eyed editors are plying me with questions about facts, word choice and writing style. Fun because this makes the publication of the book, due out in April, feel even closer.

The next step will be proofreading the pages, which is when the book begins to feel real in a physical sense. And I've already had a sneak peak at the cover, and am very pleased with the way it's turning out. I'll post a copy of it once we have the final version.

Meanwhile I'm slogging along with a little teaching and some freelance work while trying to figure out a next project. It's an odd process, trying to zero in one something that will bear two or three years of obsession, and that would be of sufficiently wide interest to make doing the project worth the time and effort.



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Joe Hill, and the killing of an icon

There's a new book out next week - not by me - that comes the closest I've seen to figuring out what really happened in a century-old murder case that led to the execution by firing squad of Joe Hill, a Wobbly organizer and songwriter who became the face of radical American labor.

The book is The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, by William M. Adler, who my Detroit friends might recognize as the author of Land of Opportunity, the story of the eastside Chambers brothers crack empire.

Hill, whose songs were largely parodies of contemporary pop music and religious hymns, was an agitator of the lyrical kind. Others wrote songs for the Industrial Workers of the World - the Wobblies - but none with as much wit, or drive. So when Hill turned up wounded in Salt Lake City on the same night a father and son were murdered in the family grocery store, Hill made a convenient suspect for the Salt Lake City police. It didn't help Hill's case that the Wobblies were actively organizing in Utah at the time, much to the consternation of the local business leaders and the local newspapers.

And drawing on a long-forgotten letter, Adler establishes to a point of near certainty that Hill was not guilty of the killings, that he had been shot by a rival for a woman's affections (it's her letter Adler found) unrelated to the grocery store case, and that Hill had been railroaded by a local power structure blinded by his radicalism and intent on stomping out the Wobblies. The New York Times this morning has a nice overview of the book and Adler's findings.

Incidentally, Hill's story overlaps with that of the Colorado coal field war and the Ludlow Massacre, the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. The grocery-store killings occurred in January 1914; the Ludlow Massacre came that April; Hill was executed in November 1915. While Hill's trial and the coal field war were separate events, they both occurred against a backdrop of significant class frictions, upheaval, and a rich-poor gap that rivaled conditions today.

I encourage you all to pick up The Man Who Never Died. Even if you're not that interested in the history of radical Americans like Hill and the Wobblies, Adler has done a fine job of finding the human story behind a complex set of details, and lays them out in a highly readable narrative. It is a story of injustice, but also about an odd sense of chivalry, and Hill's eventually fatal desire to keep his lover's name out of the public eye.

Ultimately, it turns out Hill likely was executed by a Utah firing squad because he put too much faith in the American court system's ability to discern truth, and justice. Maybe now the truth has won out. But it's far too late for justice to have been served.

Embedded here is a contemporary cover of one of Hill's best-known songs.




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Hiroshima aftermath; there are no words


Hiroshima after the Atomic Bomb (3 of 5) by Harbert F Austin Jr in Japan

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On Alaska, ice, and other photos

For the past week I've been out of reach of handy Internet access, aboard a cruise ship sailing the Inland Passage through British Columbia and southeastern Alaska. Friends over the years have reported back on the inexpressible beauty of the place, so our expectations were high. And they were exceeded. It really is spectacular.

Part of the trip was a side run up a fjord called the Tracy Arm, near Juneau. The deeper into the fjord we went, the more mesmerizing the scenery became, until we stopped within view of the face of the Sawyer Glacier - and in front of a field of ice floes. The captain of our ship, the Norwegian Star, explained later that he decided not to move closer because he feared he wouldn't be able to turn the ship around. It was windy and cold and wet - and beautiful.

In Seattle now, with a talk and signing set for this afternoon at Elliott Bay Books. It will be hard not to talk about Alaska, too....

(This is a slide show and could take a bit to load depending on your browser and Internet link).



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The reason for the long weekend

You know, some of those guys could really make a political argument:
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights,  Read More 
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What I said at Ludlow

It was hot in Ludlow yesterday. Fortunately the United Mine Workers of America, which maintains the memorial site, built a roof over the picnic area a number of years ago. So for the 2 1/2-hour gathering we had shade, and a nice breeze. And more than 100 people.

I saw some familiar faces, and met folks I've come to know through Facebook. The themes of the speeches, as one might suspect, focused on labor, and the benefits of unions, and the continuing assault on the right to collective bargaining.

Among the speakers was Annaliese Bonacquista, the great granddaughter of a 1913-14 Colorado coal striker, who passed along some emotional stories about her family history, and the legacy of Ludlow. The keynote was by Marty Hudson, a key figure in the United Mine Workers, who talked about how the coal barons of the past aren't necessarily gone. His brother was among those underground when the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia blew up last year. The brother narrowly missed joining the 29 men killed that morning (I wrote an op-ed on that theme last April).

I talked a bit about the history of Ludlow, and how it remains relevant today -- even if most people have no idea what happened in Colorado nearly a century ago. My prepared comments are after the jump.


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On d. boon, the desert, and the flash of the unpredictable

The dust cloud first caught my eye. I’d been on the road for 90 minutes or so this morning, was just east of Palm Springs on Interstate 10, when the puff of dust exploded on the other side of the median. It was a gray car and it seemed to wobble a bit as the driver, who’d drifted off the freeway onto the desert space between us, struggled to regain control. For a flash the car was pointed directly at me in the eastbound left-most lane, then it veered sharply away and across three lanes of westbound traffic as other cars, their drivers stomping on the brakes, seemed to genuflect. The spinning gray car flipped into the air and landed on its roof off the edge of the freeway, kicking up yet another burst of desert dust.

And then I was past it.

It’s remarkable how much detail you absorb in the span of a second. Or maybe two. And how simple functions momentarily move beyond reach. I couldn’t remember how to dial 911 through my car’s voice-activated system so fumbled to pull the cell phone from my pocket, the irony hovering while I punched in the numbers. It rang through on the dashboard speaker and I told the dispatcher where I was and what I had seen. “You’re probably going to need an ambulance,” I said, thinking to myself: Or the coroner.

When you drive a lot, you evolve a detached sense of safety. Crashes happen to other people. A whisper of anxiety might come as you pass roadside crosses draped with plastic flowers, but it’s for other people’s pain. Other people’s losses. We get lulled into a sense of invulnerability.

After the 911 call ended the stereo kicked back on, piping in music from my iPod, set on shuffle. I don’t remember what song was playing when the other car did its freeway shimmy then flip. But the next song up was “History Lesson Part 2,” an old blast of punk by The Minutemen, whose lead singer, d. boon, died when the van he was riding in rolled off the same freeway farther east, just over the Arizona border – which I would soon pass as I headed to Phoenix. I nudged the cruise control down a few ticks. I was going to be early anyway.

After settling into my hotel room, I called up Palm Springs news sites to learn that, miraculously, no one was hurt in the rollover. Though early Tuesday, on the same stretch of the I-10, a woman died in a ball of flames after drove onto the freeway in the wrong direction and head on into a tractor-trailer truck.

I think I’ll drive home along a different route.

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Taking a road trip into the past - join us Sunday at Ludlow

The Ludlow Monument. Photo: Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
I leave tomorrow to spend a week or so on the road doing some freelance stories during a trip framed around a tragedy - the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, the event that launched me on the path to writing books.

Regular readers here know the basics. During the 1913-1914 Colorado coal strike, 11 children and two mothers died when, at the end of a daylong gun battle, Colorado National Guardsmen torched the Ludlow tent colony. The women and children were hiding from the bullets in a hole dig beneath the floorboards of a tent; as the fire raged above them, it sucked the oxygen out of the air. As tragic as the deaths were, they were only a fraction of the 75 people who were killed during that strike, most of them shot to death in the most violent showdown between labor and capital in U.S. history.

Yet few remember this moment. A few years after the Ludlow Massacre, the United Mine Workers union bought the site of the tent colony and have managed it as a roadside spot of reflection, and homage. In recent years, at the end of June, the union has hosted a memorial service to try to keep alive the memory of the dead from that day. It begins at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Ludlow Memorial site a short drive north of Trinidad along Interstate 25. I'm honored to be part of the line up of speakers this year.

Despite winning designation as a National Landmark a couple of years ago, the Ludlow Massacre remains a forgotten moment in U.S. history. That's partly, I think, because it happened here in the West, while our collective national memory is East Coast-centric. And I say that as someone born in Maine and raised and educated there and in Western New York. I came with an east Coast bias, in other words, but after more than a dozen years living in California I’ve come to recognize that, in a historical sense, the nation tips eastward. Which makes sense. The United States began in the East, and the bulk of our formative history lies in the East, so that’s where our memory is focused.

But more significantly, Ludlow is forgotten because it involved labor. And that's a dark hole in our collective memory. Workplace safety, the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour week, health insurance and retirement plans and everything else that we find ourselves once again fighting to protect, those all began with the labor movement. And as the strength of labor has faded, so have those hard-won benefits - and the middle class along with them.

That old maxim seems to be coming true, that those who forget the past are destined to repeat it. Let's hope we don't wind up repeating tragedies like Ludlow. Let's hope all this national anger, frustration and class division builds into something positive.

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A different way of writing

So with The Fear Within launched and Detroit: A Biography safely in my editor's hands, I've been poking around for the next project while catching up on my general reading. I have a couple of ideas and am researching whether there's enough material available to make a book out of them, though at this stage I'm not too optimistic. Neither involves people who left much of a paper trail, which makes it nearly impossible to put flesh on the skeletons of their compelling stories. But we'll see.

Meanwhile, I've dusted off a mystery I've been nibbling away at for a number of years now, which is fun to work with, and has me contemplating the different requirements of writing history, and writing fiction. I was at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago for the launch of Adam Hochschild's new book, To End All Wars, his history of the antiwar movement in England surrounding The Great War, and he made a comment to the effect that fiction writing differs from history writing in that with a novel, what you write only has to be plausible. With history, what you write has to be true.

Adam was talking about some of the characters in his book, including a brother and sister who found themselves in key positions on opposite sides of the war, the kind of dramatic tension that would make you roll your eyes if it appeared in a novel. Yet here they were in real life. In the novel I'm working on, I keep encountering a similar friction. Not between plausibility and truth, but between what a character would do, and what a character should do.

It's a subtle, yet crucial, distinction. Making sure actions are true to character is obvious. But as I frame a scene, I keep stumbling over the issue of should my character do this? Is this action necessary? Does it help the reader understand the story, or reveal a subtle dynamic? Or am I just indulging my imagination?

So 40,000 words in, with the victims dead, the two main plot lines firmly established, and the characters in full dress, I find myself becalmed by second-guessing. I know where the story lines go, and how the threads come together at the end. I just don't know where the characters go in the next few thousand words. It is the difference between writing what happened, and creating what happened.

Ah, writer's block. Nice of you stop by unannounced. A short visit, I hope?

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