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Labour history novel – A Book Review

August 26, 2015
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Second volume of Sudbury trilogy tackles environmental issues

Insatiable Maw coverMick Lowe, The Insatiable Maw: A Story of Eco-Resistance, Volume 2 of the Nickel Range Trilogy (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2015), 153 pages, paperback, $19.95 CDN.

 

On the heels of his first novel about Northern Ontario mine and smelter workers of the 1960s, journalist turned novelist Mick Lowe has released a thin second volume of his Nickel Range Trilogy.

As in the first volume, Lowe displays a clear sympathy for the Sudbury, Ontario, workers and their union struggles. The first book dealt with the internecine battles for union supremacy. This second one tackles the topical issue of workplace and environmental safety.

Once again, we meet Jake McCool, the tough young mineworker who has now been transferred to the smelter after suffering a serious workplace injury. He, his girlfriend Jo Ann Winter, and his buddy freelance journalist Foley Gilpin live in a communal house.

A biker, a union health and safety activist, and an honest politician enter the mix as Lowe works his plot around the bad deeds of the mining and smelting giant Inco and the complicity of an Ontario cabinet minister. Instead of the leaders of a raid on the union local, this time the bad guys are the politicians and corporate big shots.

One of the good guys is portrayed as fictional New Democratic Party member of the provincial parliament Harry Wardell who collaborates with the union to expose Inco as an unrepentant polluter that forcefully denies its smelter is a health and safety nightmare.

As someone who studies trade union and labour history, and being a life-long trade unionist myself, I am the first to celebrate the appearance of a literary work that focuses attention on the labour movement and its struggles. I liked the initial volume and have said so. But there are some problems with Lowe’s second effort.

At 153 pages, The Insatiable Maw – A Story of Eco-Resistance is disappointingly thin and at times it reads much like a newspaper feature piece. Perhaps intentionally, there are sections where it is difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. In the realm of creative non-fiction this would be understandable, but Maw is billed as a novel.

No one would disagree that pollution, climate change, and greedy corporate environmental destruction are good grist for the novelist’s mill. But Lowe has taken an easy route here with his reportorial approach. In my view, he needed to take more time to flesh out the complications in the story. He needed to be more novelist and less journalist.

We are reintroduced to reporter Gilpin, for example, and are told of his crusading role in exposing Inco wrongdoing. But Lowe uses much of this space to describe the inner workings of The Globe and Mail, the daily that has published much of his own labour reporting. Fine for media insiders, but is it useful in moving the story forward? It seemed to me like an unnecessary diversion.

We also re-meet Jake’s girlfriend Jo Ann, who is portrayed as Jake’s conscience. Lowe only briefly alludes to the complication of her father’s alleged role in the murder of Jake’s brother during the Steel raids covered in Volume 1. That unresolved situation and the fact that Jo Ann is his only female character, suggest that Lowe missed an opportunity to add more substance to her role and to the plot. Perhaps this will be rectified in the third volume.

Good journalism simplifies complex events and good novels tend to complicate them. Journalism is an excellent tool for exposing bad doings and Lowe has proven his ability in this regard during his decades of covering the workplace scene. However, in this case he is too much the reporter and not enough the novelist.

Despite these problems, I credit Lowe with opening up an underexposed new vein of Canadian fiction. I look forward to Volume 3 with anticipation and hope for a more engaging, well paced, expansive, and complicated read about this exciting period of Canadian labour history.

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