By David Mason
Red Hen. 230 pp. Paperback, $18.95
The publicity director at a major New York publisher once told me there probably aren't more than 80,000 regular readers of literary fiction in America.
A well-received book of poetry might sell 2,000 copies.
What sort of reception, then, awaits a new verse-novel, a rare hybrid of these two endangered forms? Consider: Even though you're one of the fit but few who have wandered this deep into the pages of Book World, you're as likely to have read such a novel as to have gone sky diving. That's a shame because, while publishing long narrative poems may be as wise as jumping from a plane, reading them isn't nearly so demanding.
One of the many pleasures of David Mason's Ludlow is a brief afterword in which he acknowledges readers' prejudice against books such as his: "Anyone who writes narrative verse will confront a version of the following question: Why didn't you just write it in prose?" His answer invokes Seamus Heaney's bestselling translation of "Beowulf" and the continued popularity of Homer, but he also makes several practical arguments about the accessibility of this form: "Narrative verse is not inherently harder to read than narrative prose. In the right hands, verse actually has more clarity, drive and economy than prose, and it can offer literary pleasures of a sort unavailable in other genres."
The evidence is right here in his powerful story about the 1914 massacre of coal miners and their families in Ludlow, Colo. Yes, it's told in more than 600 eight-line stanzas of nonrhyming iambic pentameter, and if those poetic technicalities excite you, you'll be dazzled by the feats Mason can perform within that structure. For the rest of us, though, what really matters is this beautiful, wrenching tale. "Imagination's arrogance is all/ I bring to this," Mason writes, "a storyteller's hope/ of touching life in others, a poet's love/ of tropes and cadences, the sway of words."
Ludlow blends fact and fiction to recreate one of the most tragic events in American labor history. Much of the story follows a noble, endearing young man named Louis Tikas, an actual person who emigrated from Crete, lured here by promises of easy women. "Money flows like water," he hears, "rivers/ of money. A President named Rockefeller/ gives you a job the moment you disembark." Alas, things don't work out quite that way. He flounders around before finally taking work as a scab in the Colorado coal mines, which have been slowed by a violent strike. The men are essentially slaves: Their wages never cover the cost of room and board; they're surrounded by barbed wire and violent, armed guards.
"In hell/ or, as he muttered to his fellow Greeks/ crouched in the dark, digging in its direction," Tikas quickly decides to strike, and when he does, he takes more than 60 others with him to the union hall. So begins his quick rise through the ranks of the local leadership. Sympathetic and alert, he's adept at keeping the peace in this explosive situation that eventually involves 1,300 people who speak 20 different languages. The logistics of managing all these laborers and their families living in tents in brutally cold weather with sporadic supplies (often held up by railway executives) would tax anyone's management skill. It's an exhilarating, dangerous career that brings him into contact with Mother Jones (marvelously recreated here) and several other real-life figures. We also meet Colorado's bungling governor, a vicious National Guard lieutenant named Karl Linderfelt, and crafty John Rockefeller, calmly boasting about his support for every man's right to work (i.e., management's right to break the union).
"These are the facts," Mason writes, "but the facts are not the story." Running parallel to this recreated history is his invented tale of a beautiful young woman named Louisa, who's orphaned in the opening chapter when her father dies in a mining accident. "Some company lackey came to tell her/ she would have to leave," but other miners care for her until she finally gets work as a maid with a kindly family in town. These sections don't generate the excitement of Tikas's adventures, but they're moving, and they provide a valuable shift in perspective as the strike reaches its horrific climax.
In the most wistful stanzas, Mason details his long attraction to this story, his trips to Ludlow as a boy and his return as an adult, hoping to write "a tale in verse about the immigrants/ . . . the dodge/ of truth among arroyos where the fighting/ razed all hope of prospering." Ultimately, this isn't just a story about a brave labor activist, a "footnote nearly lost/ from the pages of the history books." Instead, in these stirring lines, Mason has written something far more personal: "We piece together Tikas as we make/ our own past from what evidence we find." Here's a chapter of our lives in cadences that will resonate with anyone who gives them a chance. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.