By David Mason
Red Hen Press.
230 pp. $28.95
On April 20, 1914, members of the Colorado National Guard opened fire on striking miners housed in a tent camp outside the town of Ludlow. More than 1,000 people lived in the camp, and the guardsmen numbered only about 150. But the soldiers were well positioned - and had machine guns. By afternoon, the miners had no choice but to retreat for safety to the nearby Black Hills, but as they did, one of the tents caught fire. The fire spread quickly, and by the next morning the camp had been obliterated.
Figures vary on the number of those killed. In his splendid verse-novel
, David Mason lists 19. Most were children and most died in the fire. Among those shot to death was union leader Louis Tikas. At least one guardsman perished.
If you think that a verse-novel is bound to be a slow read, filled with lingering, lyrical descriptions of landscape and weather, think again. This one moves at a brisk and steady pace: I read it in two sittings, finishing the last 140 pages in about two hours. It actually is a page-turner.
In an afterword, Mason notes that "verse is often more cinematic than prose in its rhythms and images, its narrative economy." That is certainly the case here:
Chaos of running people, screams
of men to lead the fight away from the huddled tents.
Armed strikers fired from rail beds, fired from railroad cars
and bridges, aiming at the military camps
and south where two machine guns sputtered back at them.
As you can see even from this brief passage, Mason's supremely supple blank verse impels you forward: You not only imagine the people running, but also feel yourself - because of the rhythmic pulse of the lines - keeping pace with them. Like a good film director, Mason knows just when to cut from one scene to another, and this, too, impels the narrative forward, giving it a mounting sense of inexorability.
The characters are a mix of the historical and purely fictional. Among the latter is Luisa Mole, orphaned when her father, John Mole, is killed in a mine explosion - "his limbs intact, / his face the face of a man who only slept, / internal organs jellied by the blast / that knocked him through a thin wall of the mine." She participates in the drama, but mostly peripherally, and so serves as a solitary counterpart to a tragic chorus, until "she met a woman named / Adele and they rode freights / clear out to California."
If the fictional Luisa takes the place of a chorus, the role of the heroic protagonist is given to a historical figure, union organizer Louis Tikas, whose dream of America turns into the worst sort of nightmare: "He was twenty-eight years old / with a little money saved, no prospects for a wife / and family, his life a journey to a desert." Unlike most tragic heroes, however, Tikas does not suffer from hubris:
He was Tikas,
And who was Tikas? As the Scholar used to say
in Denver, "Tikas, you're a work of fiction - you're
so American you do not even know your name."
The Scholar. He could talk, but someone had to act.
Louis had been born Elias Spanditakis in Crete, but changed his name when he came to America.
One of the virtues of
is that it is not an oversimplified tale of good union versus bad company. Sure, the goons and detectives assembled by the mining companies were awful enough, and one of them - Karl Linderfeldt - seems to have been downright sociopathic as well as racist, but Tikas and his mentor, John Lawson, both ended up betrayed by the union they worked so hard on behalf of.
David Mason himself was born and raised in Washington state, but his family hails from southern Colorado; in fact, his father grew up in Trinidad, where much of this novel takes place. It was while attending Colorado College that Mason began to spend time in the region where
is set and to ponder its grim place in history. So it is altogether appropriate that the novel should be punctuated from time to time with chapters in the first person, in which the poet ruminates over his tale, his research, his motives.
For this is nothing if not a human story. If it may be said to have a "message," it's that it is not governments and organizations, ideologies or even grand philosophical notions that are decisive in human affairs. What is decisive is the mysterious - indeed unfathomable - workings of the human heart. Tragedy occurs again and again because, too often, the great-hearted, however clearly they may think, fall victim to the small-minded.