June 22, 2009
I grew up in Southern Illinois, in what’s still called “Bloody Williamson” County, once the most radical community in the nation. The “blood” refers to an event in 1922 called “The Herrin Massacre,” in which seemingly average American men, women, and even children tortured and murdered nonunion workers from Chicago. The backlash from the riot caused such an outcry in the press that the entire nation turned its gaze on what was called the “black spot” in the heart of America.
My maternal grandfather was the model for A Democracy of Ghosts’ protagonist Bill Sneed, an auto-didact and incomplete genius who rises from child miner to state senator and United Mine Worker district president. Sneed is, arguably, in charge on the day of the massacre.
Because the real Sneed loomed so large in family legend as a man of great conviction and honor, with enormous concern for his constituency, I’ve worked hard to understand how he could have been complicit in those events of 1922. I drew from eyewitness accounts, contemporary media coverage, an ethnography of the area, histories, and my own grandfather’s letters to create the lives of four fictional couples whose ambitions, self-doubts, and social and sexual jealousies contribute to the great violence that reverberates in the region for decades.
ForeWord Magazine says, “[Griswold] is able to describe the most violent scenes with the lyricism of Steinbeck, and he can effortlessly shift into the stark beauty of narrative like Truman Capote…. As in The Grapes of Wrath, many of Griswold’s characters are…absorbed in day-to-day living but are still aware of their status as tiny parts…in the engine of a larger corporate machine. Unlike Grapes of Wrath...Democracy of Ghosts doesn’t get caught up in Steinbeck’s inclination towards melodrama and moralizing. Readers may uncomfortably identify with the characters in Ghosts.... Neither saints nor sinners, but possessing the qualities of both, the characters of A Democracy of Ghosts are liars, cheaters, killers, torturers, and opportunists; at the same time, they are loving, humorous, protective, and very human.”
Bob Shacochis, National Book Award winner and author of Swimming in the Volcano and Easy in the Islands, writes, “With iron and blood, it seems, and from the rich depths of the earth, John Griswold has fashioned a classic American novel, its dignified intonations of our young nation’s sweat and tears evocative of the indelible storytelling of Dos Passos, Frank Norris, and Upton Sinclair.”
Duff Brenna, author of The Book of Mamie and The Law of Falling Bodies, says, “At times disturbing and tragically violent, always insightful, poignant and uncompromising, Griswold’s riveting narrative is filled with complex men and women bursting with life. Fast-paced and powerful, Ghosts is an original ride told by a masterful writer.”
The Huffington Post says, “A brilliant and lyrical historical novel, Democracy of Ghosts conjures the affairs behind one of the most violent labor disputes in American history—the brutal killing of 21 scabs and coal miners at a strip mine in southern Illinois in 1921. In some ways a horrifying cautionary tale for today’s mining conflicts in the coalfields, Democracy of Ghosts explores the entangled love affairs between couples caught up in the great coal-mining strike that ultimately shattered a region, and turned one of the most radical communities into a social pariah. Griswold’s narrative is riveting. This original novel deserves as large an audience as possible—pass the word.”
It’s a novel of ideas as well as strong characters, the first being that just because one has an ability (oratory, physical strength), it’s not necessarily ethical to exercise it. This, it seems to me, applies beautifully to events in our own time. There’s also torture, politics, murder, infidelity, drugs, philosophy, a whiff of necrophilia, and one particularly odd gunman whose idea of a joke is to shoot somebody through the neck.
The novel is available from Amazon or your favorite online seller, and any bookstore can order it. If you want to fully support a literary press, buy directly from Wordcraft. In any case I hope you’ll check it out!