Two Washington Authors Tackle Labor History

Washington State is home to an amazing array of authors. You can spend an entire year reading our writers of fiction, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, poetry, children’s literature, nonfiction and more. Check out the Washington State Book Awards for a glimpse of the range of writers that live, work, or have ties to our region.

Shipyard workers walk off the job in a show of solidarity during the 1919 Seattle General Strike

So, with this rich literary landscape, it still surprises when two Washington authors decide to tackle a similar theme in their recent work. Both Karl Marlantes and Jess Walter have released novels that touch on the IWW aka Wobblies and labor history in our state. What goes around comes around, and the issues of social justice that so many fought for 100 years ago persist and take on new resonance and dimension as more voices and perspectives emerge or are re-discovered. Both Marlantes’ Deep River and Walters’ The Cold Millions (currently a Peak Pick!) dramatize the men and women engaged in the labor movement and the opposition they faced in fighting for worker’s rights.

It wasn’t all strikes. In July 1919, Seattle IWW holds a picnic to raise legal defense funds for its imprisoned leaders.

The IWW started in Chicago in 1905 and “it was the only American union to welcome all workers, including women, immigrants, African Americans and Asians, into the same organization.” The solidarity and strikes the IWW inspired caused quite the commotion and controversy as wealthy capitalists, politicians, and police tried to prevent worker’s rights from advancing. This history forms the backbone of Deep River and The Cold Millions.

Karl Marlantes’ Deep River is a “whole life” novel, following about 80 years in the life of Aino, a woman from Finland who flees Russian occupation and persecution and imprisonment as a political dissident to join her brothers in Washington State in the early 1900s. Aino is a devoted Marxist, an accidental midwife who apprenticed with her mother after the Russians took her father away, and a passionate idealist who devotes her life to union organizing and worker’s rights. Marlantes’ novel is rich with setting, characters, and politics while centering the life of a dogged, stubborn woman who risks life and limb for her cause. Aino is a complex and strong-willed heroine and the large cast of characters, including the legendary Joe Hill, as they struggle to survive in the logging and fishing industries in Washington and Oregon, are captivating throughout. This book focuses on the Scandinavian communities that fled tyranny and war in their own countries to find a better life in America.

Jess Walter has written about his Spokane hometown before, but The Cold Millions is a historical novel that captures the down-at-heel and vibrancy of the vaudeville scene in the early 1900s Western outpost. Gregory (Gig) and Ryan (Rye) Dolan are orphans often considered tramps as they try to find work and shelter in a town where the police are hell-bent on squashing union organizing. Ursula the Great is a performer labeled ‘indecent’ whose skit with a live cougar is quite the sensation. Ursula wants to help the Dolans, and enlists her wealthy patron Lem Brand, to help them, but for a price. Meanwhile, real-life activist and feminist

‘Rebel Girl’ Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrives in Spokane to help the IWW cause and stir up sympathies for the Dolans and the other union organizers thrown in the clink. Walter creates a potboiler with murder, greed, social justice, and long-simmering tensions that illuminate Spokane’s heart and soul.


Want more labor history? Check out this list created by our library workers, and keep reading Washington authors!

    ~ Misha S.

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