Has the legacy of the labor movement included any other chapter as brutal as the Appalachian coal wars of the early twentieth century? It's hard for me now to imagine a time when labor and management were in open armed conflict in this country, but here you go. Matewan written and directed by John Sayles concerns the events leading up to the Battle of Matewan (also known as The Matewan Massacre) that took place in 1920 between West Virginia coal miners and members of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency. The eponymous hero of Glen Taylor's The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart is an Appalachian orphan who takes part in the fire fight before getting into other troubles later. (More fiction inspired by actual bloody events like Matewan, Ludlow and Blair Mountain include King Coal by Upton Sinclair, and Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina).
Of course the Baldwin-Felts detective agency wasn't the only one regularly employed as strike breakers. In her book Scoundrel Time, Lillian Hellman spoke of her long-time partner Dashiell Hammett and his time in the Pinkerton Detective agency. Hammett worked for the Pinkertons in Montana and, according to Hellman, turned down thousands of dollars offered to him, in his capacity as a Pinkerton employee, to assassinate labor organizer Frank Little who was eventually killed by anti-strike agents. This event and other ugly strike breaking tactics employed by the Pinkertons eventually led Hammett to leave the agency, and Hellman saw the Frank Little incident to be a turning point in Hammett's life, and formative moment in his outlook. So, let's say his whole canon could be on this list - that cynical edge it all has (even in levity), the rampant corruption - but I'll single out The Continental Op stories here, as the hero works for a Pinkerton-ish agency, and doubtless, he drew on some of his own experiences for character and tone if not always the plot.
Dennis Lehane's The Given Day was the first taste of 'large-canvas historical saga' Dennis and we likey (that's why we're so pumped for his sorta-follow-up Live by Night coming in October.) Day has multiple narrative strains, but culminates in the Boston Police Strike of 1919.
Among Lehane's other writing credits are three seasons on The Wire, but before he came on staff, the Second Season focused on the Baltimore Port stevedores organized under union president Frank Sobotka. This season threw some fans for a loop with it's hard shift in focus from the urban poor of the city to the blue collar trials of the dock workers whose livelihood is evaporating, but it's one of my favorites. Sobotka's desperation to keep the union afloat leads him into a bad spot, and that's when things get dangerous - just like in Red Baker by Robert Ward. When Red is laid off from the steel mill at the novel's opening, he takes it in stride - it happens sometimes, but as the permanence of the situation sinks in, Red grows increasingly bitter and desperate until he makes a baaaaaad move that he sees as his last, best chance.
Lay Down My Sword and Shield by James Lee Burke - the first taste of what was to come from Hackberry Holland, and even from Dave Robicheaux - is a strong one. Holland, a Korean War veteran and former POW is now a young, going-places attorney, running for congress, but his life is savaged equally by gusts of idealism and alcoholism, and over the course of the book he manages to shoot his career and marriage through both feet with help from both winds. On the alcoholism front, he's a surly, nasty drunk who can't quit mouthing off to the wrong people (be they politicians, police or long-suffering family members), and on the idealism side, he gets involved with the volatile dynamics of a nearby picket line, for the sake of a veteran friend who has been jailed on some trumped up charges. Burke's conflicted humanity has never been so well represented.
If you want something a little lighter springing from the fertile soil of produce-harvesting, how about Elmore Leonard's Mr. Majestyk? When it's all over, it's forgivable not to remember that it all started as a labor dispute - though, this time it's a farmer vs. the mob. Oh yeah, it was a movie too. While we're on Mr. Leonard, his latest Raylan touches again (just barely touches... grazes) on the complexities of life in a modern coal community... Tensions don't quite reach Matewan-ian levels, but it does give the book a nice hint of texture.
What else comes to mind? Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. (it was also the source material for Uli Edel's 1989 film), Danny DeVito's Hoffa from a script by David Mamet and starring Jack Nicholson as Jimmy Hoffa in full-on don't-be-afraid-to-go-big mode... More? What do you think of?
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