Last week at the Los Angeles Central Library, as I entered the Literature department I saw that their monthly display was books that had been adapted for film. Traditionally I don’t like to read the book if I’ve already seen the movie, but lately I’ve changed. I’ve seen too many films based on books well worth reading but that haven’t been read by me. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is one of those that has been in my mind, and there it was on the display shelf. A minute later there was an empty spot in that display.
I’m more than halfway now and it didn’t take many chapters for the book to garner a solid place on my short list of best American novels of the past 25 years. What a remarkable book, on a human level and societal level. It’s as funny as it is thematically groundbreaking. Stockett blends her fictional characters so seamlessly with the historical events of that time and place, and the result is chilling. Besides its insights into Southern society and race relations, the novel is worth the read simply for its exploration of family relationships and child development.
I’m spending this week at a big suburban house. The owner is at work all day and I’m reading The Help. It’s the day that the cleaning lady comes. She’s a petite Salvadorean woman who cleans the huge upstairs while I read downstairs. She seems very sweet and refined. Her English is limited. When she comes down to do the kitchen and family room, I evacuate to the large backyard where the waterfall splashes into the pool. I catch glimpses of her mopping the hardwood kitchen floor. My mind is wandering and I’m stalled on a page of dialogue between Aibileen and Skeeter. I don’t feel much like petting the little dog of the house while she cleans because she might see and taste the irony.
It’s technically considered fiction, but it’s really more a biography or a history. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you call it, it’s pretty darn magnificent. It’s Upton Sinclair’s book The Flivver King (1937), and, like his more renowned book The Jungle, it almost single-handedly reformed an American industry. *[See my previous post for more recommended reading on the subject of capitalist exploitation of labor.]
The so-called Flivver King was Henry Ford, and Sinclair depicts in substantial detail the life and times of that titan of industry, as well as two generations of a fictional family that worked for him. While I knew that Henry Ford was a powerful industrialist with a reputation for conservative politics and narrow-mindedness, I had no idea of the extent of all those features. Neither, apparently, did the American public during Ford’s lifetime, at least until Sinclair’s book appeared. When it was published, it helped to make the United Auto Workers a viable union, and other industries and unions followed suit. Can you imagine how many peoples’ lives have been drastically improved by this one small book?
Now, you might think such a book would make for less-than-scintillating reading. But in fact the book is enthralling, even chilling, and Sinclair’s subtle brand of irony spices it beautifully. I read The Jungle in my sophomore year of college, and never picked up another book by Upton Sinclair until now. Shame on me!
My blog entry for April 6, 2014 (scroll down a few months) discusses three top-notch works of fiction dramatizing the plight of the American working class in the early 1900’s. I have just finished a fourth, which deserves equal credit for a powerful portrayal of the exploitation of industrial workers from a Marxist perspective. There is no doubt in my mind that A World to Win, by Jack Conroy (published 1935), is one of the best books I’ve read in a decade, and one of the great novels of his era. I can’t judge Conroy’s body of work because I had never heard of him before I came across A World to Win in the library. The book had been out of print for several decades, but recently republished by the Univ. of Illinois Press’ series called The Radical Novel Reconsidered.
Conroy’s novel is the story of two brothers who grow apart as post-World War I America goes through expansion of industrialization, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the rise of world fascism. Each brother, in his own way, discovers firsthand the unremitting hardships endured by blue collar workers and the hopelessness which clouds the future of an entire class. Conroy’s characters and their dialogue are as real and colorful as if we were walking those picket lines ourselves. There is little to distinguish A World to Win from the best of Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s prose may have a sharper, more naturalistic edge to it, but Conroy has an earthy Zolaesque frankness in which no subject is taboo, and the sordid details of these humble lives sit side by side with the mundane.
One of the most brilliant devices of this novel is role reversal, and Conroy skillfully utilizes that device not once, but twice, between the two Hurley brothers. The dynamic sibling relationship between these two strong characters is an unforgettable metaphor for the sort of crisscrossing journeys that workers and intellectuals made during some terrible and tormented periods of our history. These journeys, this history, deserve to be made more familiar to the generations of today, and A World to Win deserves to be read and appreciated as a key exponent of this critical process of familiarization.