With Labor Day approaching, it is a perfect time to delve into some novels that explore the lives of working men and women. A great place to begin, of course, is John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, his heartfelt tale of the challenges facing the Joad family as they leave their dustbowl home during the Depression in search of work as migrant fruit pickers in California. The depth of characterization and the pure passion Steinbeck brings to the novel is amazing. Also try his earlier novel In Dubious Battle for a portrait of a young man involved in labor disputes between migrant workers and apple orchard owners.
Another classic portrait of the American worker is Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, a searing account of life for newcomers to the Chicago stockyards. The Library owns the uncensored edition published in 2003. This edition includes portions Sinclair edited out of the 1906 original because the publisher thought the material was too gory. Indeed, life is not kind to protagonist Jurgis Rudkis, a Lithuanian immigrant who discovers that Chicago is not just a source of meat-packing jobs, but a place awash with crooked employers, corrupt political bosses and unscrupulous realtors. The Library’s Third-Thursday Book Discussion Group had a fascinating discussion about this book and many members wondered if a novel today could incite social change the way Sinclair’s novel did. If you belong to a book group, you might want to check out the book-kit-to-go the Library owns for this title. For a keen portrait of Southern California’s early oil industry, check out Sinclair's Oil, a 1927 novel that was the basis of the 2008 film There Will Be Blood starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
The lives of immigrants in the inner city is on display in Kevin Baker’s City of Fire Trilogy, which begins with the 1999 novel Dreamland. The first novel, whose name is a Coney Island amusement park, paints a picture of turn-of-the-century New York and intersperses real historical characters with Baker’s fictional creations. What emerges is a historical novel that is rich in period detail as we witness the arrival of immigrants to New York City and the birth of the labor union movement. The cycle of immigrants’ lives continues with Baker’s 2002 novel Paradise Alley, a story set amid the 1863 riots in New York City caused by President Lincoln’s announcement of a draft. The trilogy concludes with Strivers Row, Baker’s 2006 novel that explores racial and labor tensions in 1943 Harlem. Baker is not only a novelist, but has been an American Heritage columnist and the chief historical researcher for Harold Evans’ The American Century, which was published in 1998.
One of the characters in Baker’s Dreamlandis a sweatshop worker. That milieu is the springboard for Katharine Weber’s 2006 novel Triangle, which tells the story of the granddaughter of Esther Gottesfeld, the oldest living survivor of the historic 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City. The fire killed 146 workers, mostly women, and triggered efforts to improve working condition in the city’s sweatshops.
Thomas Kelly, himself a former construction worker and Teamster, is the author of Empire Rising, which is a tale of the Jazz Age in New York at the time of the groundbreaking for the construction of the Empire State Building. One of the novel’s key figures is an ironworker helping build the skyscraper and he is among the many colorful characters in Mayor Jimmy Walker’s New York.
Workers in distress are featured in French novelist Emile Zola’s Germinal, his 1885 novel focusing on the perilous conditions for workers in Northern France’s mines in the 1860s. It depicts worker Etienne Lenier’s efforts to try to lead a labor strike.
The lives of coal miners are depicted in two novels – The Green Age of Asher Witherow, a 2004 debut novel by M. Allen Cunningham, and Strange as This Weather Has Been, a 2007 debut novel by Ann Pancake. Cunningham’s historical novel is a coming-of-age story about a miner’s son in a Northern California mining town in the mid-19th century. Asher begins working in the mines at age 10 and he is a witness to the difficult lives of the Welsh immigrant miners. Pancake’s novel looks, too, at the coal mining industry, but from the viewpoint of a family in West Virginia whose lives are impacted by the ill effects of strip mining on their beloved land in the 1980s. The novel vividly depicts their struggles against poverty and their activism against the mining industry.
Workers' concerns are also on display in Ward Just’s 2004 novel An Unfinished Season. Just is a talented novelist who is able to write compelling stories that depict the interplay of culture, politics and morality. Here we find Teddy Ravan facing worker unrest in his 1950s suburban Chicago printing business. Class divisions are in full view as we see Ravan trying to defeat the union organizers behind the strikes at his plant, and his nineteen-year-old son’s job at a Chicago tabloid that introduces him to political corruption and questionable journalism. Once again, Just delivers a novel that works on several levels.