THE BATTLE OF BLAIR MOUNTAIN: The Story of America's Largest Labor Uprising

Robert Shogan, Author . Westview $26 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8133-4096-8

In this concise, dramatic and authoritative account of the bloody 1921 encounter between the mine workers and mine owners of the West Virginia coalfields—the most tumultuous labor battle in American history—Shogan gives us a strikingly vivid post-WWI America both utterly foreign and oddly familiar. A former political reporter for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, Shogan is as much good feature writer as historian. Out of a confusing and often still-disputed series of events, he sets scenes and fills in necessary background with an unfussy narrative drive. Such well-known figures as the mercurial Mother Jones and the stalwart Samuel Gompers have their roles, as do a pair of presidents (Wilson and Harding), whose dithering made a difficult situation worse. Less familiar figures such as the organizer Sid Hatfield and the detective C.E. Lively are drawn with lifelike strokes. Police raids and deportations, bombs sent through the mail and a general air of panic and "red" hysteria build as miners and owners move inexorably toward their ultimate confrontation. The tragic outcome of the battle between a group of mountain people and the full power of the emerging superstate—with WWI hero (and later state senator) Billy Mitchell's biplanes ready, 15 years before Guernica, to bomb civilians—is inevitable, but it is Shogan's triumph here to make the reader feel it anew. A minor quibble is the otherwise fine bibliography's failure to mention John Sayles's Matewan, surely an important (and reasonably accurate) version of the events in question. 10 b&w photos. Agent, Carl Brandt. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/03/2004
Release date: 05/01/2004
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