BIG TROUBLE: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America by J. Anthony Lukas

BIG TROUBLE: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

From the recently, tragically deceased author of Common Ground (1985), a brilliant but flawed portrait of class warfare in early-20th-century America. Two-time Pulitzer awardee Lukas's ostensible subject is the 1905 assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg and the subsequent trial of three officials of the Western Federation of Miners, accused of ordering Steunenberg's death in retaliation for his role in the military suppression of a violent 1899 strike in Idaho's Coeur d'Alenes mining district. This is merely a jumping off point, however, for a ramble through the thickets of America's industrial, political, social, and cultural structures at the turn of the century. When Pinkerton operative James McParland (one of the book's many titanic personalities) emerges as a key player in the prosecution's efforts to convict William Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone, Lukas pauses to recap the history of private detective agencies--in England as well as America. When Clarence Darrow enters as a defense attorney, we get 28 pages of biography before rejoining his clients in Idaho. The story of the army regiment that put down the Coeur d'Alenes unrest; the character and career of each major reporter covering the trial; the fractures within the Socialist Party--Lukas crams all this and much more into a massive, unwieldy text. Many of the digressions are fascinating, all of them showcase the author's superb analytic gifts and powerful prose, but Lukas fails to distinguish the relevant from the merely intriguing. The background material unquestionably gives depth to the book's grim depiction of a nation enmeshed in virtual civil war, with capital and labor equally willing to employ unsavory tactics and the government almost always on the side of the big boys. Without the aid of a coherent story line, however, the narrative ultimately suffocates in excessive detail. Provocative, maddening, deeply disturbing--a fitting epitaph for a man who in everything he wrote asked Americans to look at their nation's unvarnished reality.

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 1997
Page count: 880pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster