Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical
By Jacqueline Jones. (Basic Books, 464 pages, $32.)
Lucy Parsons knew how to use a soapbox. In pamphlets, in packed lecture halls and on real soapboxes in parks around the country, she captured media attention from the 1870s through the 1930s with her calls for workers to rise up against brutal industrialists and corrupt police. “Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination without pity,” goes one of her quotes.
Strong words for the impassive wife, mother and dressmaker seen in photos. But Parsons’ life was one of contradiction. Born to an enslaved black mother, she championed the cause of white working classes. She appeared to dote on her husband, but was willing to see him hanged. Her life was all about the struggle to bring down capitalism and replace it with a society in which people worked freely for themselves.
Biographer Jacqueline Jones uses research to give Parsons’ saga epic sweep, recapturing a time that could have reshaped the United States if things had gone differently. She traces the fiery Parsons from antebellum Virginia to post-Reconstruction Texas to Chicago, where the deadly Haymarket affair of 1886 became her defining moment.
Parsons is seen as a “principled” anarchist who joined many radical groups only to quit in spats over what the new world order should look like. Old age finds her unrepentant and somewhat mystified that the inevitable revolution did not come.
Parsons made good copy then, and she does now. Many scenes will have the reader thinking, “Oh, no, she didn’t.” She did.
The Library at the Edge of the World
By Felicity Hayes-McCoy. (Harper Perennial, 340 pages, $15.99.)
Set in a fictitious village somewhere on the west coast of Ireland, “The Library at the Edge of the World” is a sweet novel about weathering unwelcome change. Hanna Casey finds herself, in midlife, back home in Ireland and living with her mother again, after she discovers her wealthy London barrister husband has been having an affair. Hanna, who has loved the sophistication of big city life, is now working as a small-town librarian and sometimes-bookmobile driver. She’s embarrassed by what she sees as her great comedown in life.
Seeking independence, she decides to renovate the tumbling-down cottage that her aunt left her, but just as she signs the loan papers to pay for the work, she finds out the county council has a plan to close her library and move all services to a bigger town. So now what? She’s alone, she’s cranky, she’s frustrated, she’s broke and she’s quite possibly about to be thrown out of work.
Ah, but this is Ireland, where news travels fast and townsfolk always know more than you think they do about your business. And in the last 50 pages, this becomes something akin to a Maeve Binchy novel, with quirky characters popping up out of nowhere, townsfolk pulling together, and the formerly cranky Hanna blooming into the heroine of the town.