Sure, you’ll be out organizing and agitating this summer, but when you do take a break, here are some suggestions of political novels culled from among members of the Democratic Left board and DSA’s National Political Committee. If you try them out, we encourage you to order from a local independent bookseller. — Ed.
The Green Corn Rebellion, by William Cunningham: This 2010 reissue of the powerful 1935 novel about the 1917 rebellion by Oklahoma’s tenant farmers, members of the Socialist Party, against the draft and World War I is still gripping. There is a fine introduction by historian Nigel Sellars, author of Oil, Wheat, and Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma. I half-expected this to be mainly of historic and regional interest, but I was pleasantly surprised. It stands alongside Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Upton Sinclair’s better work.
Tell Me a Riddle, by Tillie Olsen: It’s not a novel, but I’ll make a case for including these four short stories. The book includes the working-class feminist classic, “I Stand Here Ironing,” the monologue of a mother reflecting on raising her youngest daughter in poverty. It’s fairly autobiographical. Union organizing and mothering four children (the first of which she had at age 19) prevented Olsen from being very prolific. She produced beautiful and insightful political prose, with an eleventh-grade education and very little time to dedicate to her craft.
The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin: This science fiction work is the most astute political novel I have ever read. Shevek, a scientist who grew up in the anarchist community formed on the moon Anarres after its founders were exiled from the Earth-like home planet Urras, comes to oppose the rigid thinking and conformity of anarchist society and travels to the home planet. At first, he is impressed by the richness and apparent freedom of the dominant capitalist society on Urras, but learns that this is based on the oppression of the poor majority. He joins a popular uprising that is repressed with brutal force. Shevek returns to Anarres, still believing in the anarchist ideal and determined to risk the opprobrium of his fellow anarchists by fighting for his individual beliefs.
Strumpet City, by James Plunkett: The story is set among the Dublin working class from 1907 to the great lockout of 1913. It’s neither a dreary prole-cult tome nor a tale of the valiant boyos of the Irish Republican Army. It’s about fully fleshed-out working people who are not simply nationalists battling British influence but trade-union class fighters warring against both their own gentry and British capital. It’s a super read, and the characters are unforgettable. Plus, the politics are excellent. I can’t think of another political novel in English that touches all those bases so poignantly and so well. Read the book before trying the mini-series with Peter O’Toole and Peter Ustinov.
Sugaree Rising, by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor: The San Francisco journalist J. Douglas Allen-Taylor tells a fictional story of resistance loosely based on the true history of a 1930s South Carolina Gullah community threatened with flooding and displacement by a government hydroelectric project. It is about the ways the community preserved its traditions and solidarity after the end of slavery and gives us the rich diversity of personalities who made up the community. The writing is amazing, with just enough dialect to be poetic. It’s told mostly from the point of view of a teenage girl who is trying to figure out what’s going on. I fell in love with it.
Rosa, by Jonathan Rabb: I’m not a fan of books about serial killings of women, but the political twist, when the fifth body dredged from the canal might be that of Rosa Luxemburg, got me. Detective Inspector Nikolai Hoffner—a stock character clueless about family relationships, drinking too much, and an honest cop working under a dishonest government—can feel the noose tightening in Weimar Berlin as political currents he doesn’t understand swirl around him. It doesn’t quite work as a mystery, but the ominous foreshadowing of the horror to come gives us a sense of what it might have been like to live in that era.
The Regeneration Trilogy, by Pat Barker: These three novels trace the psychological impact of World War I experiences on several historical and fictional figures. In Regeneration, psychiatrist Dr. W. H. R. Rivers treats victims of shell shock, including poet Siegfried Sassoon; emerging poet Wilfred Owen; and the fictional working-class officer Billy Prior. The Eye in the Door explores the government’s targeting of pacifists and homosexuals. Action in The Ghost Road takes place in France and, by reminiscence, Melanesia, where Rivers previously conducted ethnographic research. While in Europe men are becoming mentally ill from going to war, Melanesians are suffering mental illness from being forbidden to engage in traditional warfare. I loved the vivid characters and rich context.
This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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