Lee (Limestone Wall, 2014, etc.) recounts the story of forgotten radical Agnes Smedley in this historical novel.
From inauspicious beginnings, Smedley is destined for greatness. Born in Missouri in 1892 and raised in the coal camps of Colorado, she becomes acutely aware of the economic disparity that determines so much of what a person can expect from life. After much traveling around the American Southwest, she enrolls in college in Tempe, Arizona, where she meets a woman who encourages her to pursue journalism as a mechanism of political change. “What sort of political work?” asks Smedley. “Help the working class overthrow the capitalists,” replies the woman. “Women’s emancipation. Birth control....Bring about a socialist world.” So begins Smedley’s globe-trotting career as a journalist and activist, a life that involves assisting the plots of Indian nationalists, getting imprisoned in The Tombs in New York under the Espionage Act, and making love to a spymaster only feet from a wastebasket containing a decapitated human head. Interspersed between the chapters covering her younger life are those of an adult Smedley living in a cave among the loessial hills of China, covering the defeated Red Army in its camp at Yan’an. As a journalist, she interviews Cmdr. Zhu De and brings news of the Communist forces to the rest of the world. The two strains eventually catch up with each other and intertwine, as Smedley witnesses the marriage of her politics and her purpose in life as well as all the trouble those things can cause. Lee’s prose is smooth, and her account of Smedley’s evolution is sympathetic and colorful (during an attack on Shanghai in 1931, Smedley, armed with her notebook and pencil, “walked and ran with Chinese families as they evacuated, lane by lane, just ahead of the Japanese. In the background, bombs, gunfire, and sirens shook the city”). The author adeptly creates scenes that highlight the surreal miscellany of her subject’s life, as when Mao Zedong assists Smedley in ridding her cave of rats. The narration turns overly expositional at times, and a reader occasionally might have preferred to linger in various moments longer. But the book succeeds in illustrating the messiness of the early 20th century, when Smedley becomes simply one person among many attempting to fix the world with little more than her pen and her will.An engaging tale about a remarkable female activist.