Delving into the wanderings through eastern Washington State, Idaho and western Montana of two brothers – Rye and Gig – during a period of economic destruction, exploitation and the employer/union battles, it is so easy to become involved in Jess Walter’s latest work. While fictional, the true-to-life violence between powerless workers and powerful employers during the upheaval of the early 20th century is the central theme. Mine owners exploit and endeavour to subjugate their workers with the assistance of local law enforcement and hired thugs. The workers fight back via the Wobblies (the International Workers of the World) and other fledgling unions. Orphans Rye and Gig, aged 16 and 23, ride the rails, seek whatever work there is and begin to get involved in union campaigns, particularly in Spokane, Washington.
It is a well-woven tale of these two brothers, one leaving unstable childhood with no transition and craving stability; the other addicted to wanderlust as well as periods of existing through an alcoholic haze while trying to be a surrogate parent. Parentage seems their only commonality except for union association as that involvement expands. Some of the events depicted were real and the inclusion of the real-life Elizabeth Gurley Flynn shows a strong feminist side to the struggle. She is a young, strong and articulate leader who opens Rye’s eyes to the world as it is. There is the feared mine owner who becomes more scared for his own safety, the police chief trying to work out a way to end the corruption of his force, and the union activist who preaches explosive violence with a totally different agenda.
Two months into its release, Walter’s compelling account was prominent in the 10 Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post and CNN and featured as a best book in The New York Times. Reading it, you entirely understand those accolades.