A Terrible Unrest

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There is a plaque on the wall of a house in Loutra, near Rethymnon in Crete, commemorating the birthplace of Louis Tikas, one of the leaders of the 11,000 Colorado miners on strike in 1913-14 against the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

Tikas was murdered in cold blood by the Colorado National Guard on 20 April 1914 as part of what has become known as the Ludlow Massacre.

A Terrible Unrest by Philip Duke is a historical novel published for the centenary of the massacre. It tells the story of the strike. The novel is a worthy tribute to Tikas and to the bravery of the miners.

Duke combines historical figures and events with fictional characters. In so doing, he creates a powerful retelling of the strike where the narrative drives the reader on, even though the story is already known.

Much of the narrative centres on a Cretan immigrant family, the Andrakises. We learn of how brutal life was in the company-owned towns, the conditions that led to the strike and the way the union organised, largely through the experiences of the Andrakises and their friends.

This works well in showing what life was like for the strikers and their families in the Ludlow Colony. Duke handles the differences of opinion between strikers, their families and their union leaders sympathetically.

He describes effectively how Rockefeller’s Colorado henchmen set out to crush the miners’ union, and how they were able to use the sheriffs, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency and even the state governor and the National Guard to try and break the miners’ resolve.

Duke shows the miners defending themselves but that, even when that is with weapons, the state is always better armed and more violent. His depiction of how events unfold on the day of the Ludlow massacre is particularly memorable.

The novel is at its best when it focuses on the mining community. But Duke’s attempts to tell the story from the viewpoint of a range of ruling class figures are less successful.

His biggest weakness is that he does not do justice to the possibilities for solidarity action as news of the massacre spread.

There is no sense of the insurrectionary mood in Southern Colorado or the potential for a national solidarity strike and the failure of the unions to act on that mood.

For a novelist to claim to be “as historically accurate as possible” that is a failing. Nonetheless, this novel deserves a wide readership. Some 100 years ago Upton Sinclair was so enraged at what happened in this strike that he wrote “King Coal”. Philip Duke’s novel will help get a new generation equally as enraged.