Monday, October 1, 2007

A Snug Life Somewhere

A Snug Life Somewhere
By Jan Shapin
Reviewed by Melissa

On November 5, 1916, members of the Seattle chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World headed north by boat to Everett, Washington to attend a rally. When they got there, they were met by a group of local authorities, who informed them that they would not be able to land. Tensions escalated, a shot was fired, and in the resulting chaos, at least five members of the IWW were killed, as well as some of the citizen deputies of Everett. It is with this event, and the subsequent labor conflicts in the Pacific Northwest, that Jan Shapin shapes her debut novel, A Snug Life Somewhere.

Penny Joe Copper is your average, run-of-the mill working girl. She comes from a union family in Everett, and has spent the first 24 years of her life pretty much just cleaning up after her not-so-great father. When her father ends up in jail in Spokane (convicted of murder for the death of a nightwatchman) and her younger brother heads to Seattle to go to college, Penny figured it was time to leave, too. She headed for Seattle, intending to follow her brother to college and begin a new life for herself. However, because of the Everett Massacre, her life ends up taking a different path.

This novel is not what I expected. I think, from the synopsis on the back, I expected some sort of light romantic-historical-adventure-fiction story. What I got was a sweeping picture of a woman's life, one that is at times heartbreaking and funny, ordinary and amazing. It's an all-inclusive story, one that reads like a personal memoir, which is both this book's strength and weakness.

It's a strength, because it allows the reader to see little-remembered events in the mid- to late-1910s intimately. How many of us know even the first thing about early 20th-century labor unions and the rise of Communism? How many have heard of the Everett Massacre or the Seattle General Strike? Through this book we see them both, with Penny as our eyewitness. She is a rabble-rouser; on the contrary, she's an observer, just like us, an interloper on history. Events happen to her and around her; she is the cause of very little -- at least for the first half of the book. When her brother is killed in the Everett Massacre, she falls in with Gabe, one of the ringleaders of the local labor movement. She says she doesn't really like Gabe, doesn't want to be a part of his circus -- playing the role of Grief in his rallies -- yet she lacks the fortitude to do anything about it. So, as things do to passive people, one thing follows another, and she ends up in Mexico with Gabe.

I am leaving a little bit out. She does actively pursue, though that sounds more predatory than it is, a 17-year-old violinist, Marcel. She even goes as far as to forge his birth certificate and attempt to kidnap him to Portland to marry him. It didn't sit right with me, though. It felt desperate -- though maybe it was supposed to feel that way -- and out of character for Penny. It was simultaneously heartbreaking and expected that Gabe and Marcel's mother show up to take Marcel back to Seattle.

I have to confess, though, that I didn't like Penny for much of the book; I found her weak and uninteresting. It seemed that the historical events overwhelmed her, overwhelmed her narrative. And considering the book is written entirely in Penny's words, and is all about Penny's life, that is a major weakness in the story, at least for me. Of course, weak characters in fiction can also be compelling characters, but this case Shapin didn't quite pull that off. It wasn't until she left Gabe in Chicago, stealing a Faberge egg (which had been brought to Mexico by a Russian spy and that Gabe failed to deliver to the specified Russian contact in Chicago), that I finally began to like her. It was then that she finally grew up, accepted responsibility for her own life, and took action.

With murmurs from the audience, a dozen little girls, skinny and tall, short and plump, decked out in lavender tutus, rose to pass around baskets of sweets, and I thought how, when I was that age, I would have liked a dress like that, to be among the sugar plum fairies, passing out sweets. But I took hold of myself, told myself such daydreams were not productive, that I was twenty-six, no longer a child, as close to an orphan as a person could be with a mother still alive, and I'd better get to wishing for things that were possible. I promised myself I'd someday visit a palace, but gave up on the notion of a lavender ballet dress.

Unfortunately, her character's development came almost too late in the book for me. I did feel that the change was organic; I could sense Penny's maturing throughout her time in Mexico. Without that, Penny's sudden gumption when she does face Gabe again, and when she moves on for the rest of her life, would have seemed false. But, there was too little of the story left for me to entirely enjoy this new Penny.

While I was often frustrated with Penny, Shapin did a fine job with the often difficult trick of mixing historical figures with the fictional ones. The historical characters were little enough known (Mikhail Borodin was one that I did recognize as historical, aside from a brief appearance of J. Edgar Hoover) that she was able to allow them to have a personality of their own, apart from what history has said about them. However, after a while I got the sense that Shapin was almost more interested in the historical events than she was in her characters (though, admittedly, that may have been a function of the Penny's basic weaknesses). Many pages were spent explaining the politics, the history, the feeling of the time period. I suppose it was necessary, since these are little-known events, but I eventually became somewhat bored with it, wanting more story and less setting.

However, aside from the historical lectures, the prose was often delightful to read. Shapin has a way of making the most mundane efforts seem interesting, and the most banal events come to life:

I watched the wrinkled linens, still smelling from naphtha, disappear into the long padded arm, each sheet in its turn pulled deep into the maw. I thought about the word mangle, how such a term came to be used for a machine whose job it was to crush wet linens into freshly ironed sheets. A harsh restoration no doubt, to emerge newly bathed only to be steamed and flattened inside an unrelenting machine. Not something to be welcomed, but considered necessary by us humans, to restore sheets to useful life. A merciful God could have provided a more bucolic transformation, I thought, performed by Swiss maidens, using flat irons on a mountainside balcony. But this wasn't Switzerland, and I wasn't a Swiss maiden. I was in the basement of the biology building, next to the heating plant, and my sheets were getting ironed according to the laws of the world they were consigned to.
And that is the best thing about this book. It doesn't take place in some historically grand event or time. It's about working people making their way through life, looking for peace and something better. And this one woman's story, whatever its weaknesses, is a fine enough way to experience that.