Nineteen-seventeen wasn't exactly the best of years. The first American troops began to land in France. Hamburger had become Salisbury steak, and sauerkraut Liberty Cabbage. St. Louis schools dropped German from their curriculum. A wave of dachshund poisonings swept the country. Pancho Villa was stirring up his old troops for more border raids, and Black Jack Pershing wasn't around to chase him off anymore. And . . . having already shut down the whole state of Montana, the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) called a mammoth strike in Bisbee, Ariz, the queen of Copper Camps.
Depending on one' sympathies, the Wobblies were either "The Greatest Thing on Earth" or "the advance guard of the Antichrist." Harry Wheeler, "last of the real sheriffs" and "the one man charged with the historic mission of destroying the Wobbly menace," is convinced that the Bisbee strike is a German plot against the government of the United States of America. Into Bisbee that blazing July pour bindlestiffs and union organizers, along with some of the most famous IWW names-one-eyed Big Bill Haywood, 87-year-old Mother Jones, beautiful and clever Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and her Italian lover. Elizabeth's former husband, Bo Whitley, would prefer to handle the whole strike himself, since it's his home town and he knows and hates the local copper plutocrats.
These "plutes" (one of them reads Carlye and Nietzsche) and Sheriff Wheeler are indeed formidable. Forming the West's largest posse, rounding up the strikers like cursing cattle, and shipping out over a thousand of them in closed boxcars and cattle-cars deep in dung, they break not only the Bisbee strike but also the back of the IWW. Still, Haywood thinks, there will always be American workers for whom "scab is a dirtier word than hunger."
I wish I could say that Robert Houston has transformed this challenging raw historical material into an important and rich novel. He has not. The characters of "Bisbee '17" - real and fictional - are stick figures, almost allegorical in their blatant representativeness. Art Matthews, for instance, who serves as a narrative link between the bosses and the strikers, a young Army officer fresh out of Princeton and home on leave before shipping overseas, is a totally incredible cartoon-image who would make Harold Teen look sophisticated: "And the other Wobs . . . good chaps, still, but he has nothing in common with them outside of a political science course he took sophomore year." "Art knew that Gurley Flynn and Tresca were living together in a state of Free Love, and that excited him, too . . . He's heard a lot about Free Love among the radicals and thinks it's not such a bad idea . . . He is a little worried that the long train trip has wrinkled his jodhpurs." Even the traditional black and white hats would be a subtler tip-off to the depths of character than most of the techniques used in this book. Sheriff Wheeler's toughness is an overcompensation for his 5-foot-4 height. Bo Whitley is a disturbed and furious man because he had allowed his drunken father to die alone. One of the copper tycoons is such an effective fascist apparently because he's sonless. Mother Jones looks promising, but the author refuses to develop her, concentrating instead on "that Flynn woman."
The novel is divided into date and time blocks, each given over to the consciousness of one of the central actors. A respectable structural device, but most of the consciousnesses are too watery to serve efficiently as centers or even filters. For some strange reason, Houston chooses to render the Haywood and Wheeler chapters from the second-person point of view, which results in the booming pretentiousness of Ralph Edwards on "This Is Your Life": "Your do your best. You live by the finest code you know. You think you understand courage and manly action. You model yourself after the finest men, the straightest shooters. And then your father doesn't speak to you because you were too short to go to the Point." Or: "... you take a last shot of rye and stand. They're waiting for you, for Big Bill Haywood, who can't walk away from them."
Some of the prose gets even soggier: "She knows she ought to keep him at a distance, to put her energy into the general strike, where it belongs. But she pulls him closer and slips her arms around him. The coat falls open. Bo feels warm against her bare breasts." "She has given herself up long ago to a kind of passion that transcends all other loves or hates or needs. She aches for Bo, but he is somewhere back there, behind her."
In the action sequences, the author seems to believe that he can create breathless suspense by nailing together paragraphs of staccato sentences: "But then the screen rattles. Maybe something is up. May she's got a Mex boyfriend with a curved knife. Maybe Bo's already been done in Art's stomach feels cold. Oh, God, there's no help around here, that's for sure. Even his family can't do any good now...." The quoted Joe Hill lyrics to the IWW protest songs stand out like gems on these murky pages.
A righteously partisan work, "Bisbee '17" is obviously based on hard research and sparked by furious outrage. (It surely will not appeal to Margaret Thatcher.) But it simply does not do what it claims - transform historical facts into imaginative fiction.