Sunday, January 4, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Haymarket tragedy recalled through the eyes of the poor

Special to The Seattle Times

"Haymarket: A Novel"

by Martin Duberman
Seven Stories Press, $24.95
With "Haymarket: A Novel," Martin Duberman, a professor at City University of New York and a labor historian, has created a not-too-fictionalized account of the infamous Haymarket affair in 1886 that is easy to read and bursting with history, yet ultimately has no magic to it. It's a fine effort, but it has the neutral smell of the historian's aesthetic.

Duberman focuses on a remarkable real-life couple, Albert Parsons, a former Confederate soldier, and Lucy Gonzalez, a part-African-American woman. They met and fell in love in Texas in the 1870s, and then traveled north in search of a better life. They didn't find it in Chicago, but that's where they settled. This allows Duberman to describe 1870s Chicago to us through immigrant eyes, and he makes the most of it, sometimes almost showing off with his wealth of period detail.

Albert soon gets a job as a printer for The Chicago Tribune, and becomes part of — and then a leader of — the growing labor movement. Albert and Lucy gather friends (August Spies, Samuel Fielden) and enemies. They debate the issues of the day. It quickly becomes apparent that, of the two, Lucy is more radical, ready to wipe the political slate clean, while Albert is more cautious, optimistic and, ultimately, naïve. Even after he's indicted for the Haymarket "riots" (an anarchist bomb thrown at police; police opening fire on a labor crowd), he continues to believe in the justice of a system he's trying to overthrow. In this way they are similar to another left-wing couple in literature: Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, E.L. Doctorow's fictionalized version of the Rosenbergs in "The Book of Daniel."

Because Duberman draws no parallels to modern times, the reader is forced to do this himself — and this may be the most worthy aspect of "Haymarket." Among the questions that arise while reading: Can you compare the union-busting of the 1870s manufacturing economy with the union-busting of our service (read: Wal-Mart) economy? If our current social safety net is cut down — and certain zealots are already sawing away with their knives — are we in danger of becoming this again? And while the "net" part of the social safety net is meant for the poor, doesn't the "safety" part go both ways?

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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