Watson's book deals with a period in America's labor history that most history books ignore, and it captures this period in a fresh, unforgettable manner.
The strike, in early 20th century New England, commenced on January 12, 1912 with textile workers storming out of a mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts. It engaged the attention of the International Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies, and the American Federation of Labor, and, from thence, absorbed nationwide interest with charismatic and fearless veterans of other strikes involved. Replete with descriptions of unforgettable acts of cruelty, and the dedicated and inspiring acts of sacrifice of participants from fifty-one nations, with the inclusion of a protracted murder trial that centers around the issue of free speech, the Bread and Roses strike is a story that is as pertinent as ever.
Through Watson's unforgettable prose, we are drawn into the lives of those textile workers on the icy cold winter streets. We see and experience the inspirational and sometimes-eccentric leaders through their eyes, live their history with them, and feel their sense of injustice and rancor. Joseph Ettor, otherwise known as 'Smiling Joe', inspires us as the young charismatic organizer who came to lead their campaign. And we root for Elizabeth Gurney, an individual who struck down two mores of her time: she was a woman and she stood up for to poor. Other radical orators such as Haywood, Flynn, and mill owner William Wood of the American Woolen Company all come alive on the pages, and through Watson's tremendous craft we gain sympathy for both oppressor and victim alike. The characters -- all of them -- become three-dimensional. We see the legendary Wood - rags from riches who despite his own disadvantaged past (or perhaps because of it?) fails to remember his own origins. We are with the mythical Bill Haywood who whilst aggressive and dedicated, abandoned his workers when they most needed him. And we creep into and understand the militia who acted the way they did because they were bored, bitterly cold, and resentful at being used (151). It is this gift that investigates and brings out both sides of both hero and scoundrel that vivifies the prose.
There is no better way of learning history than reading books such as those authored by Watson. The book, in fact, reads like a modern-day thriller but it seems to me that it is intent on making a point (at least one) and that through marvelous use of rhetorical skills devoid of preaching and persuasion, Watson succeeds in getting hits point across.
The story is the classic tale of David against Goliath and of the workers of the world rising up against their superiors and actually defeating them. But most significant the story "is a quintessentially American event, one of which the entire nation can be proud" (p.3)
The story is presented to us as is in a direct and entertaining manner. We see the kitchens of the crowded tenements, and the rioters along the picketing lines, as well as the freezing, shuddering and shivering individuals along the ice of the Merrimack River. We are thrown into struggles between the police and the militia, and are there fighting alongside with the textile workers who are trying to persuade yet another fellow to join their crusade. Most of all, we too feel frustration and anger at thee mill owners and aggravation at the unfairness and inequality of life. All of these feelings are aroused through description and through mere presenting of facts. The book reads like a true-life story as it is and we are brought in to experience it.
We love the book because it is applicable to today's situation. Powerful corporations that influence and bribe government with their money; poverty, particularly that of the working class, overlooked, and pushed into the corner; owners and CEOs making excessive profit at the cost of their laborers; and injustices rampant because of the disproportionate power of economic clout makes the book as viable and risible today as ever.
Ettor is locked up on trumped-up charges and we identify with that today because too many in positions of power succeed in eviscerating vulnerable others. Race and money as well as age succeed in brutalizing and victimizing others, and too often they win. It may be that part of the power of this book is that goodness -- myth though it may be -- does prevail and that the poor and downtrodden have their day at the end. In the end, it is the Ettors, and the 'uneducated immigrants' who win and prevail against the 'rich mill owners' rather than the police and the militia.
Another seductive features may be the youthfulness, courage, and resilience of the fighters that resonates through the pages. Most people like a David contra Goliath battle, and this is one if any. We expect the Goliath to win but root for the David. The book, reminiscent of our own lives, where Goliaths (in the form of powerful corporations and nations as well as governments and institutions) habitually pin poor Davids to the ground. We are pleased when David can get up and remain up time and again despite being knocked down and when he finally knocks his opponent senseless.
Best of all is the spirit of America that resonates through every page -- it is the America of our dreams, the mythical America of utopian idealism -- that grips our attentions. All ages and nationalities come together in one mighty fight:
There were Poles from Galicia, Italians from Sicily, Syrians from the Ottoman Empire. There were Jews from Riga, Odessa, and other exotic ports of call. Beside them marched Scots, Armenians, Portuguese, Belgians, Germans, English, French-Canadians, Russians, Greeks, Irish, and dozens more nationalities. Their faces were coffee colored, pale as the sky, and every shade in-between. Dark bushy moustaches sprouted from the men, accentuating sad brown eyes, while women's faces -- pretty, plump or skeletal -- were framed in shawls or crowned by flowery hats (p.14)
Prejudices were dropped by the wayside as this battalion of "Wops and Dagoes, Sheenies and Kikes, Canucks, Polacks, Huns, and Micks" (ibid.) otherwise known as "doffers, spinners, weavers, spoolers, yarn boys, carders, pickers" (ibid.) or to the upper-crust of Lawrence "those people." Did indeed become one people.
Led by the charismatic Ettor and the notorious William "Big Bill" Haywood, as well as by the 21-year-old Elizabeth Gurley, an inspiration speaker and firebrand, all ages, all nationalities, all classes, both gender pitch in for a fight against the powerful and it is this fight that Watson accentuates as representative of America at its best. Class and gender difference as well as ethnicities are thrown aside. For the sake of justice, all external characteristics are overlooked and hand-in-hand they battle together for the right of the poor. "Teeming crowds poured through the streets shouting, "Strike!" In thirty different languages." Sciopero in Italian. GrAve in French and Portuguese. Strajkuja in Polish. Streikokim in Lithuanian. Shtrayken in Yiddish. Streik in German. And in English -- strike. (p.56)
And ultimately it is one America: "On both sides of the divide, stars and stripes waved in the drifting snow" (ibid).
Pointing to an episode that occurred in the past but is so relevant today, in a situation of workers turning against unjust owners they win the interest and sympathy of the world and defeat their superior. And it is this, in the end, which makes America. It is this; Watson may be meaning to tell us that indicate the true spirit of the nation.
Look at that spirit!
Workers were not in despair; they were singing. On sidewalks, women locked arms and marched together, cheering, calling out to others to join them. Reporters who journeyed into the dark…