Book Review: ‘Power’ by Howard Fast
Miners in the U.S.A.
Power by Howard Fast (Methuen 21s.)
Howard Fast has added another story to the many dealing with the bitter struggles of the American Trade Union Movement in the 1920’s and 30’s. His latest novel, Power, deals with a particular section, the mineworkers, and it is a tale of horror and bloodshed.
In those days the mine owners (“mine operators” Fast calls them) were quite prepared to use armed might against union organisers and striking workers. Threats, intimidation, violence and murder, none of these were shunned by the company police in their efforts to remove the threat to their bosses’ profit margins. It is not really surprising, then, that mineworkers responded in like measure.
Fast builds his plot around two main figures—Ben Holt, a local mineworkers’ leader, and Alvin Cutter, a young New York journalist who is sent to cover a strike which Holt is organising in West Virginia. “All characters . . . are fictitious . . . ” says the usual caution at the front of the book, but the background against which the tale is told is certainly far from fiction. Like their British counterparts, the U.S. miners suffered terrible privations in those days. Tattered, hungry and emaciated, it is astonishing that they managed to fight back at all, and many were their defeats before they won even the legal right to organise.
Mr. Fast tells us all this, and more. Ben Holt endures agony with the rest of his men in the opening stages, but he is quick to realise the possibilities which leadership of the union holds for him. He claws his way to the union presidency, the very top, and ends up with a yearly salary of fifty thousand dollars. The rank and file, meanwhile, are struggling for a national minimum of four dollars an hour. It is, in fact, a familiar story of trade union leadership generally in recent years. Here in Britain, it has gone a stage further and we are quite used to ex-T.U. men are being appointed to lucrative posts by the government, to say nothing of the knighthoods which are dished out from time to time. We know, too, that mineworkers—and others—have had to come out on strike often in the teeth of opposition and even denunciation from their own elected officials.
Power is a hard-hitting book. It does not make its characters any more lovable than they need be. But then the story is hardly a pretty one. The struggling trade unionists of yesterday had to put up with naked and open brutality in their efforts to organise for better pay and conditions. That sort of thing is a rarity now, but we still have to battle with our employers over wages, hours, and the like. So in that sense, nothing has changed, and this is the point we can appreciate in retrospect when reading a book like this. It is a fight which is unceasing so long as it is confined to such a field. It will end only when the issue has broadened to embrace the very ownership of the means of life, and has been won.
E. T. C.