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ONE WOMAN'S LIFE AMID EXTRAORDINARY TIMES

A Snug Life Somewhere - Jan Shapin

This novel is of a life lived by Penny Joe Copper, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and came of age during the labor unions' struggles of the 1910s. As a reader, I am not overly fond of novels that are "narrator-driven." I prefer for the novelist to present a full cast of characters who are free to express themelves, and so breathe life into the novel. So, when I began reading "A Snug Life Somewhere", it was somewhat slow-going for me, with Penny Joe as narrator. But at the same time, I was being given a fascinating education about the U.S. labor movement of 100 years ago that drew me closer into the novel. One of the key historical events that shaped Penny Joe's life was the death of her younger brother Horace in a "union tragedy known as the Everett Massacre" of November 1916. Out of this tragedy, Penny Joe became involved with a number of people active in the labor movement and Socialist Party.

With America's entry into the First World War in April 1917, Penny Joe and her "Svengali", Gabe Rabinowitz --- a dark, curly-haired radical activist and unabashed self-promoter possessed of an overinflated ego --- left the Pacific Northwest (Gabe was evading the draft) for Mexico, where they sat out the war and planned (with a number of revolutionaries they met in Mexico City) their return to the U.S. to help bring about a revolution similar to the one that brought Lenin to power in Russia in November 1917.

A month after the Armistice, Gabe and Penny Joe make it back into the U.S., establishing themselves in Chicago, itself a hotbed of social fervent. While there, Penny Joe finds her old love from the Northwest, Marcel, an aspiring violinist. But it is fated to be a short meeting as Penny Joe sneaks away (with a special object coveted by her Svengali) from the apartment she shared with Gabe (he was away on "political business") and made her way to Wisconsin, where she found a job and stayed for a while. Eventually, fearful of being "found out" by Gabe, Penny Joe decides to return to the Northwest to take up a job with the local union paper, whose owner was a close friend of her. What is interesting is the encounter Penny Joe has on the long train journey to Seattle with a young lawyer in the Justice Department who headed a division responsible for finding and apprehending "foreign born radicals/revolutionaries" and promptly deporting them. (This young lawyer would later gain infamy as he went on to acquire great power and influence in national law enforcement.)

Penny Joe shares her life with the reader -- and what a long and interesting life it was, taking her from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast and home again. That for me made "A SNUG LIFE SOMEWHERE" worthwhile when all is said and done.