Jacqueline Jones’ “Goddess of Anarchy” is a tough-minded biography of a fiery revolutionary whose activism spanned the decades from Reconstruction to the New Deal.
Bancroft Prize winner Jones evinces considerable respect for her subject, a woman born into slavery who gained fame in 1880s Chicago as one of the anarchist movement’s most vocal advocates of violent revolt. But the author finds plenty to criticize about Lucy Parsons (1853-1942), beginning with her decision, when she left Texas with her white husband, Albert, to disguise her racial identity and to almost entirely ignore the plight of African-Americans as she battled for the working class. Jones deplores the couple’s praise of “the dear stuff dynamite” as an instrument of liberation — loose talk that helped convict Albert and seven other anarchists of conspiracy to murder in the wake of an 1886 demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square even though none of them threw the dynamite that killed seven policemen. The biographer’s sympathies are clearly with more pragmatic radicals like Mother Jones, who argued that the anarchists’ theatrical tactics and rhetoric were distractions in the struggle for real reforms like the eight-hour working day. Jones also finds distasteful Lucy’s embrace of traditional gender roles, promoting herself as the widow of a Haymarket martyr and plugging her self-published copies of Albert’s biography at every opportunity while leading a sexually free life and railroading her son into an insane asylum after a quarrel. Nonetheless, the author acknowledges Lucy’s gifts as an orator and salutes her refusal to be relegated to a subordinate role by her male comrades. “In the end,” she concludes, “there are few lives that are not a bundle of contradictions and shortcomings.” Parsons remained committed to radical causes throughout her long life and gave her last speech, to a group of striking workers, scarcely a year before her death in 1942.
“Goddess” is comprehensive and fair, though a little more warmth toward Parsons would have made the book more engaging.
(Jones will speak and sign copies of her book starting at 7 p.m. March 5 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)
A Virginia mom dutifully treading the path toward middle-class respectability is thrown down the rabbit hole when she’s accused of drug dealing and worse in Brad Parks’ “Closer Than You Know.”
Despite having been taken from an abusive father and grown up in a series of group homes and foster homes, Melanie Barrick seems to have landed on her feet. While she works as a dispatcher at Diamond Trucking, her husband, Ben, studies history at James Madison University, where his mentor is grooming him for a tenure-track job, and her 3-month-old son, Alex, is taking baby steps toward becoming his own person. The wrecking ball is lowered on Melanie’s life when she’s late picking up Alex at day care and learns that Social Services has already spirited him away after hearing that the Augusta County sheriff’s office has found nearly half a kilo of cocaine hidden in the boy’s nursery together with all the evidence they need to convict Melanie of intent to sell. In short order, Melanie is arrested for assaulting a police officer, hauled off to jail and threatened with five years in prison. Her Social Services hearing is over before it begins, and the preliminary hearing on the criminal charges goes no better. Things couldn’t possibly get any worse — unless she finds out that Ben has been lying to her for months about a very important subject and she’s charged with the murder of a man she’s only seen once before. Deputy commonwealth attorney Amy Kaye, pulled off the case of a serial rapist to slam the prison door on the Coke Mom so that her incompetent, politically minded boss, Aaron Dansby, can burnish his resume and run for higher office, smells a rat, but her attempts to undermine the case against Melanie are as unavailing as her attempts to link the Coke Mom to the Whispering Rapist.
Parks dishes out another irresistible descent into hell for a heroine who regards her harrowing plight with a sobering verdict: “It was like hitting a new bottom every day.”
(Parks will speak and sign copies of his book, along with Chad Zunker with his book “Shadow Shepherd,” starting at 7 p.m. March 8 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)
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