On the Plain of Snakes, by Paul Theroux****-*****

Paul Theroux has been a successful travel writer for a very long time, but he is new to me. Lucky me, I read this free, thanks to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s for sale now.

The first thing that took my notice was that this is a gutsy writer. Though he’s in his late seventies, he hops in his personal vehicle and motors south to Mexico, and then all over that nation independently, venturing into out-of-the-way spaces, mostly eschewing the usual tourist haunts that draw the spring break crowd from the US and other parts. Over and over again, locals explain to him that this road, or that, or the other is very dangerous right now; sometimes he revises his route; sometimes he takes the route but at a different time; and sometimes he goes anyway, but takes somebody with him. What he doesn’t do is go home early, or store his car somewhere and follow a tour guide around. I stand in awe.

Theroux approaches his journey as a researcher, rather than as a tourist advisor. He interviews countless individuals, even learning a little of one of the indigenous languages—in addition to Spanish– in order to communicate. I gave up trying to trace his route, instead just going with the narrative as it unspools.

I have to tell you, this is a tome. I might never have finished it had I relied exclusively on my review copy. I recognized it would be a hefty commitment to get through all of it, so once again, I turned to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version. I found it went much faster once I was able to do something else with my hands as I listened. Joseph Balderrama is a wonderful reader, and I quickly found myself absorbed into the journey, as if I were an unseen passenger.

Theroux takes us through the ordeal at the US/Mexico border, which was a nightmare during the time this was written, during the Trump administration. (If you have a MAGA cap in your closet, you may not enjoy this book.) He listens to Mexican citizens that live near enough to the border that they can actually see it from their homes, or from their workplaces. Some of them have lived in Mexico but worked in Texas for a long time, and the hardship they experience once the rules are changed is dreadful. And the insight I gain from listening to his interviews with people there about immigration to the US is most enlightening.

The most amazing thing to me is the way the cartels and the Mexican police force overlap, and in a number of places are exactly the same people! He describes multiple shakedowns by traffic cops while he is driving. It seems that the state pays its cops next to nothing, and so in order for them to support themselves, (particularly, we assume, those not being paid by cartels also,) they are permitted to stop anyone they believe has some money, and essentially intimidate them into a bribe. But it’s not complete chaos: once a driver has been shaken down, they are entitled to a receipt for the money they have had to forfeit so that another cop up the road cannot do the same thing.

The one tourist area Theroux passes through is Puerto Vallarta, which also happens to be the only place in Mexico that I have visited. About ten years lapsed between my visit—a very pleasant one—and Theroux’s, and I was saddened to learn how unsafe it has become, and how badly the locals, who were mostly middle class when I was there, have it now.

There are a number of fascinating passages, and I learned a lot. One village is awash with what sounds like a new sort of trans woman, (new to an American from Seattle, at least,) and another where the handmade sandals are finished with a jaw dropping method. There’s one very poor village where earthquakes occur so frequently that most of the homes are no longer standing, but many people won’t sleep indoors anyway for fear of being crushed to death. No aid from the Mexican government or any international body has ever reached them. Those people are on their own, and they are suffering.

Perhaps the sweetest parts have to do with the friendships that the writer forms with the people he meets there. I especially enjoyed reading the interviews with his new author and artist friends.

For those like myself that approach this with general interest, I’d call this a four star book. My stamina is greater than most, yet as much as I enjoyed it, it did feel a little bit lengthy. For those with a particular interest in the socioeconomic, cultural, and political realities of Mexico, it’s five stars, hands down.

Recommended to those with an interest in this field.

The Autobiography of Mother Jones, by Mary Harris Jones*****

Note: I wrote this review before I began this blog, and I was shocked when I found I had somehow not included it here. There’s no disclosure regarding a review copy, because I didn’t get one. I bought this book and paid full cover price, and I will keep it until it is pried from my cold, dead hands.

Mother Jones has been called “the most dangerous woman in America”. Some refer to her as an anarchist, but in her autobiography, she denounces anarchism, though allows that these folks have their hearts in the right place. She has been called a syndicalist (which is probably closer to the truth), but the fact is that she was motivated by what she saw right there on the ground in front of her. When the Russian Revolution unfolded, she was by her own account past 90, and by the account of another biographer, in her mid-80’s, so either way, she was very, very elderly, yet she championed its achievement at the Pan-American labor conference held in Mexico:

“…a new day, a day when workers of the world would know no other boundaries than those between the exploiter and the exploited. Soviet Russia, I said, had dared to challenge the old order, had handed the earth over to those who toiled upon it, and the capitalists were quaking in their scab-made shoes.”

Jones’ career as a political organizer began shortly after she turned 30. She was a married woman, her husband an iron worker, and she stayed home with their four small children. “Yellow fever” (which I think is malaria) came and killed her whole family, and then as if that wasn’t enough, the great Chicago fire swept away her home and all her possessions.

Some would have turned to suicide. Some would have gone looking for an elderly widower to marry. Some would have gone off to find distant relatives and live with them as little more than domestic servants.

Jones reinvented herself and gave the next fifty-plus years of her life to making the world a better place.

Still clad in a widow’s black garments, she put her hair up in a chaste bun and left Mary Harris Jones behind. From this time forward, she would be “Mother Jones”. Think of it! The cinders from the American Civil War were barely cold, and women had no position in American political life, including the labor unions. Yet by becoming a mother to workers everywhere, including the women and small children laboring in mines and textile mills, she became a force to be reckoned with. It was a brilliant piece of theater, entirely sincere in its intention and in many cases successful. She was one of the most ardent champions of the 8 hour day:

“The person who believed in an eight-hour working day was an enemy of his country,a traitor, an anarchist…Feeling was bitter. The city [Chicago] was divided into two angry camps. The working people on one side–hungry, cold, jobless, fighting gunmen and policemen with their bare hands. On the other side the employers, knowing neither hunger or cold, supported by the newspapers, by the police, by all the power of the great state itself.”

When Mother speaks, people feel they should listen, and if she speaks in their better interests, they listen harder. And in the early days, at least, the boss’s goons and the local law thought twice about putting a hand on Mother. It wasn’t nice!

Later, as her impact on their wallets hardened their resolve, they would deal with her less gently. She didn’t care. She spent nights in jail when she could have left town instead. Sometimes she traveled into a coal mining enclave where every bit of property besides the public roads was owned by the mine owners. Even homes that had been rented to miners were closed to her, as was made clear enough to break almost anyone’s heart. She describes a mining family that held a union meeting at which she was present in the coal fields of Arnot, Pennsylvania. The following day the company fires and evicts the family, and “they gathered up all their earthly belongings, which weren’t much…and the sight of that wagon with the holy pictures and the sticks of furniture and the children” made the local miners so angry that they decided to strike and refuse to go back to work till their union was recognized.

The quote most well known that shows up on tee shirts, posters, and coffee mugs among the liberal and radical milieu today is knocked clean out of context, in my view. “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” was delivered in order to get working men out of the local church, where the priest was trying to cool down the heat and persuade the coal miners to wait for a reward in heaven. “Your organization is not a praying institution,” she reminded them, “It’s a fighting institution!” She tells them to leave the church and meet in the local school, which their own tax dollars had bought. And she later tells other miners that striking is done to provide “a little bit of heaven before you die.”

From Chicago to the coal fields of West Virginia, from New Mexico to Pennsylvania, she was found among railroad men and their families, machinists, textile workers, and above all, miners. She had no use at all for union officialdom, and though she occasionally praised a senator or governor who saw the light of day and called off the hounds of vengeance so that unions could be organized and the workers represented, more often than not she saw them as perfidious and untrustworthy.

When Eugene Debs became a candidate for U.S. president, she embraced his campaign, though she stayed among the workers, which I think was the correct thing to do. But when Debs comes to speak to coal miners and the union officialdom wants to meet his train quietly with a few representatives, Jones proposes all the union members go to greet him. They stampede down to the train, leap over the railings, and lift Debs onto their shoulders, she says, shouting, “Debs is here! Debs is here!”

I could have been finished with this slender volume quite quickly if I hadn’t been making notes (most of which, as usual, I cannot fit into my review, but then I should leave you some choice tidbits to find for yourself, and there are still many of them!) The chapters are brief, and so the book can be read just a few minutes at a time. And the introduction is written by one no less auspicious than Clarence Darrow himself.

You may look at the price and wonder whether you should pay that price for this slender little volume. The answer is, oh hell yes. Please remember that the words of the woman herself are worth twice as many from some armchair hack who wants to pick it apart and wonder whether she was really 83 or 85 at such-and-such moment? Spare yourself the blather and go straight to the primary source. It’s worth double the cover price!