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!

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson*****

If some of what follows challenges what you have come to believe about Churchill and this era, may I just say that history is a lively abode, full of surprises.”

Erik Larson wrote The Devil in the White City, and so when I saw that he had written a biography of Churchill, I leapt at the chance to read it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

I have spent most of my life dodging stories of the second world war, largely because I had grown bored, as a young woman, hearing my father’s ramblings with friends. No young person wants to hear their parent’s stories unless they involve great fame or heroism, and perhaps not always, even then. And so, when someone older than myself would speak of “the war,” my ears closed at once. Footage of Churchill’s iconic speeches sometimes popped up on the television, but all I heard was “blah blah blah,” and I would either change the channel or leave the room. And so, it is only now—after a career of teaching American history and government to teenagers—that I find myself curious about Churchill.

The book begins when King George asks Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain—who, along with his staff, had been carrying on with ordinary length work days despite the crisis at hand, and who had been contemplating a surrender to Germany—to step down, and then invites Churchill to take his place. Churchill has no intention of surrendering a single centimeter of British soil to Hitler, and soon everyone knows this. The book ends when the United States formally enters the war. By focusing on this brief period, Larson is able to include detail, the meaty anecdotes and quotes that a full length biography would limit. That said, the hard cover version of this book is still over 600 pages in length, if one includes the thorough and excellent endnotes, and if you haven’t the stamina for other books of this length, you probably won’t have the stamina for this one, either.

Since my childhood impression of Churchill was that he was dull and stodgy, I was fascinated to learn how truly unconventional he had been. He often worked 16 hour days and expected his staff to do the same, but he did so on his own terms, breaking for two baths daily (but dictating from the tub to a male secretary that sat tub side, tablet and pencil in hand), and likewise doing business from his bed, not merely over the phone, but with documents, a typist, an immense thermador to hold his two foot long cigars, and his cat, whom he called “darling.” He might be clad in a silk floral dressing gown (in America, this would be a fancy robe) and pom-pom slippers, or he might be buck naked. Today we would refer to the working baths and feet up in bed as a sort of self-care; the fact that he was able to carry it off during much more conventionally straightened times amazes me. He kept a machine gun in the trunk of his car, and he armed his family members, including the women. Invasion was a real possibility, and if it occurred, he and his family would be primary targets. He told them that if they were to be taken, possibly killed, the least they could do would be to take at least one Nazi down with them. And like so many fathers, he climbed onto the roof during Nazi bombing raids to see the action despite the risk, but made his daughter stay far away from London in the countryside lest she find herself in harm’s way.

Larson incorporates a variety of sources, but the two most frequently quoted are from Colville, who was one of his private secretaries, and Mary Churchill, his teenager. I question the amount of ink young Mary receives initially, but at the end, when I see where life took her, my objections fade. Also included are the views of top Nazi officials, primarily Joseph Goebbels, whose diary shows his dissatisfaction with Roosevelt, whose fireside chats inveighed against Fascism and in favor of the British cousins. Goebbels wishes that Hitler would take a hard line against the Americans, reflecting without an ounce of irony that “One must defend oneself sometime, after all.”

Larson’s congenial narrative draws me in almost like narrative nonfiction. Despite the death, the destruction, and the horror, it is—for me, at least—a curiously soothing read in all but one or two of the harshest spots. Perhaps it is because it was long ago and far away, and I know that—this time, at least—the Fascists will lose.

There is only one photograph in my digital review copy, and a note of a map that will be included in the finished version; I wish there were more. I came to my desktop to see images of the infamous Lord Beaverbrook, the Prof, and Pug Ismay, all of whom were Churchill’s key advisers, and I went to YouTube to listen to the Dunkirk speech and others that were so captivating and celebrated. Now that I grasped the context in which they were given, I can understand why they had an electrifying effect upon the British public and won the favor of other English-speaking nations, my own among them.

Is this the best Churchill biography? For those that want all the nitty gritty, there are many others, and Larson refers to them in his introduction, including one that is eight volumes long. For me, though, this is enough. Those that want an approachable yet professional introduction to this subject could do a lot worse; I recommend you get it and read it, and then you can decide if you want to pursue the subject further.

Highly recommended.