The Winner of the 2020 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction Is The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions is a novel of the burgeoning Pacific Northwest that presents history through an engaging storytelling voice brimming with both humor and pathos. In the early 20th Century, Ryan “Rye” Dolan, a 16-year-old orphan, sets off from Montana in search of his older brother, Gregory (Gig). Finally reuniting in Washington state, Rye and Gig ride the rails, attempting to make ends meet amidst obstacles that include ruthless employers, corrupt job agencies, and Gig’s less than responsible approach to life. This approach leads Gig to join a group of idealists and later the Industrial Workers of the World. Rye is less than taken with the unions, which he sees as a sure-fire ticket to jail and beatings from local law enforcement. Despite his misgivings, Rye is pulled into the middle of the workers’ rights struggle when a beautiful young activist (the historical Elizabeth Gurley Flynn), travels to Spokane to stir things up. In a desperate attempt to free Gig from imprisonment for his union activities, Rye is forced into a devil’s bargain with a dangerous mining magnate. The history of this period of labor unrest is woven seamlessly into the plotting, allowing The Cold Millions to illuminate an era that is often overlooked. Walter’s characterization and multiple narrative perspectives, from Pinkertons to burlesques, add even more color to an already vibrant portrayal of the tramp lifestyle amid the industrialization of the Pacific Northwest. The result is an entertaining and riveting read. – B.L.
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Finalist for the 2020 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction Is The Book of Lost Light by Ron Nyren (Black Lawrence Press, 2020)
Set in San Francisco and surrounding areas at the turn of the 19th century, this novel portrays the activities of an eccentric tiny family. The father, Arthur, is a portrait photographer, mechanical genius, and a somewhat unstable man. His wife died in the childbirth of their son Joseph, and the family is saved by the arrival of Arthur’s orphaned niece. She herself is a bit eccentric, but stable enough to keep Arthur in reality and to serve as a surrogate mother to Joseph. Arthur has some peculiar theories about the nature of time, and how he might capture the essence of time by taking a photograph of his unclothed son, Joseph, in the same pose at the exact same time of each and every day. The dynamics between father and son form the heart of this novel, and the reader can anticipate the time when Joseph as an adolescent ultimately rebels.
The prose is engaging and the descriptive passages illuminative. We read a vivid description of the San Francisco earthquake and its effects on the everyday citizenry of San Francisco. There is much here on the history of photography. Before Joseph was born, Arthur worked for Eadweard Muybridge, an actual historical person, at his experiments with the photography of motion that he conducted at Leland Stanford’s farm. There is considerable discussion of Muybridge and his and other early photographers’ work, and this gives the reader a good sense of the period and a feel for technological innovation in photography during this period. The book feels fresh. – D.J.L., Sr.