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 Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson***-****

3.5 rounded up.

Cussy Mary Carter delivers books to the rural poor folk of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky during the Great Depression. I read this quixotic tale free and early, thanks to Sourcebooks and Net Galley; it’s available for purchase now.

Cussy is the daughter of a miner; her mother is dead, and her father is dying slowly of Black Lung, known to them locally as “the miner’s sickness.” She has no siblings. The government pays her to follow every possible winding path to reach out-of-the-way homes, loaning books, magazines, and the scrapbooks assembled of odds and ends by the librarians themselves. It provides a bright spot in an otherwise grim little town.

I like Cussy Mary, but I have to admit that I am more attached to Junia, her mule—and if you read this book, you’ll see why. Everything Cussy does is fraught with peril, and though I seldom do this, I cheat and look ahead because although I can tolerate any fate for the human characters here, I need to know whether anything will happen to Junia. Junia serves as Cussy’s transportation, watchdog (watch mule?) and best friend. Ordinarily I am no more attached to hoofed animals than any other city dweller, but this plucky critter has me at hello.

One of the best single moments in historical fiction occurs when Cussy Mary is confronted by a rattlesnake on a path. A shot rings out, and a neighbor woman steps out of the trees holding a gun and yells, “Back. That’s my supper.”

The story’s greatest strengths all have to do with setting and historical detail. Cussy Mary and her father are among a relatively rare racial group that no longer exists, people possessed of blueberry-blue skin. They were often shunned by those they lived among, some of whom regarded them as “colored” (as did local law), and others of whom feared they carried a curse. I had never known about the “blues” before reading this novel, and this is historical fiction at its best, that which educates us and makes us like it.

I would have liked to see more subtlety and ambiguity in the development of Cussy Mary and the lesser characters. Everyone here is either a good person or a bad one. Richardson’s good people never have bad moments or vice versa. I understand when Cussy Mary turns down offers of food even though she is hungry; part of it is the pride that is an inherent part of the culture, and she also fears that those making the offer may be giving up their only food of the day. I understand this the first time she tells us, and the second, and the third…but by the time I see it again (and again, and..) I am rolling my eyes and wishing fervently that once, just once she will say thank you and scarf down the biscuit, or the apple, or the whatever. On the rare occasion she accepts food, she takes it to someone else, and then she goes home and eats thistles. It makes it difficult to believe her character, because nobody is that saintly every minute of every day.

Nonetheless, I recommend this book to you, because there’s nothing else like it. If there were a body of fictional literature widely available regarding this time, place, and its people, I might say differently, but as far I can see, this is it, and the setting is strong enough to just about stand on its own. Those that enjoy the genre will want this book.