Listless historical novel that centers on events in a particularly turbulent era in America’s past, a time of bombs, bullets and ample deaths.
It’s been a matter of historical speculation for generations just how much influence the pioneering anarchist and labor organizer Emma Goldman had over Leon Czolgosz, the possibly mad farm boy who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901. Higgins (Waiting for the Queen, 2013, etc.) explores that influence while depicting the world of labor activism in the age of Haymarket and the Pinkertons, a time when it was not especially good to be Jewish, foreign-born and radically inclined even as law enforcement agents were insisting that the unrest was all the fault of—well, radical, foreign-born elements. (Czolgosz was born on a Midwestern farm, but never mind.) Alternating points of view, Higgins never quite inhabits the minds of either Czolgosz or Goldman, and too much of the book is given over to rather flat, talky dialogue: “And if a son avenges a father’s death by killing his father’s murderer, is he acting out of a sensitive nature?” asks Nellie Bly, the great journalist, who wanders late onto the scene. Answers Goldman, “Some actions are more impersonal than others.” What happens to poor Czolgosz is anything but impersonal; about as much reverie as can be found in these pages issues from the executioner who’s assigned to electrocute the young man, “sitting there like he’s on a train going somewhere.” The story throughout is full of such promising elements, of which too little is made, and one can only wonder what a master such as Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth might have done with them.
Serviceable but not at all memorable. The reader new to this history will be better served reading Goldman’s own autobiography and Wallace Stegner’s like-minded, much superior novel Joe Hill.