By James Bourey
Apprentice House Press
Loyola University Maryland
319 pp - $19.99 paperback
The labor movement in the early part of the last century was a necessary step in the progression of humane treatment of working people. It was as important as the move to eliminate child labor in the previous century in England and the United States. There was a great deal of resistance to the child labor movement, resistance that astonishes us now. And there was resistance to the labor movement in the era of this fine novel by David Salner. The resistance wasn’t just from the owners and bosses of the mines (and other industries) but also from some people who would benefit the most from union progress. And this novel brings us to those times as it follows a very realistic path, full of tension, violence, romance, and the burdensome difficulties of hard labor.
David Salner is a poet as well as a novelist. But he has also been a miner, steelworker, machinist, bus driver, garment laborer, teacher, and librarian. When the lead character – Bill Waite – describes his work in a mine or on a digging crew building the Holland Tunnel the scenes are palpably real. We feel the pressures of the places; heat, wetness, demands for production, pains of intense repetitive motion on body and mind. We suffer, with the workmen, through shifts full of danger and the need for intense concentration. Mr. Salner uses the keen observational skill of the poet to create more than just a mood. He is also able to stir up our senses of smell, hearing, touch and even taste as he describes everything from busting ore out of a copper mine to clearing mud from the drill-face of a tunneling operation.
A Place to Hide is certainly historical fiction but it is also an adventure story, a story of self-examination and identity discovery, and a bit of a mystery. Through Bill Waite’s desperate escape and subsequent journey, we learn about the dangerous and debilitating conditions in various workplaces before the union movements helped to make significant changes. We follow his path from the mines in the American west to New York City and then to coal mines in the east. Conflict is always close as he dodges his pursuer. Deftly added to the mix is a touching love story, an exploration of the necessity of friendship, and some quiet humor in lively dialogue.
Underneath the tale of escape and intrigue is the author’s deep concern for things that are important to men and women who do dangerous, necessary work for limited pay and with little regard for their well-being or physical safety. Without ever preaching, he points out the importance of solidarity in striving for workplace improvements. In the years after WWI, labor organization was in its struggling youth. Laws protecting the owners and management of mines (and most every other manufacturing or raw material procurement enterprise) were heavily weighted against the freedom to organize and strike. Strike breaking was an accepted practice, with violence against workers usually ignored by law enforcement and the press. This novel is built upon incidents during those unsettled times and it doesn’t pull back as it brings up some hard-edged detail. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair was never far from this reader’s mind as I was wrapped up in the story. And the tale of the times presented in these pages should serve as reminder of the work still needed in addressing the shortcomings in pay, safety, and healthcare for folks in many thousands of jobs today.
This is a thoughtful, well-written and entertaining novel. And it is an admirable debut effort in the novel form, and a welcome addition to the writing credits of a widely published and well recognized poetic voice. I recommend it as a book worth adding to your shelves.
Jim Bourey is an old poet now living on the northern edge of the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. He lived in Delaware for thirty years before this recent move. His new book of poetry is The Distance Between Us, from Cold River Press.