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Class Warfare in Turn-of-the-Century Idaho


By J. Anthony Lukas

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Simon & Schuster

832 pp., $32.50

Pay attention to the subtitle of "Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America." It hints at the scale of the task undertaken by author J. Anthony Lukas. His past work included the Pulitzer-winning 1985 work on racial integration in America, "Common Ground." That book visited the vast topic of race by zeroing in on a Boston neighborhood traumatized by busing battles of the 1970s.

"Big Trouble" is another volume that moves from a specific locale and event to the contemplation of larger issues. It starts with a man, a leading citizen, walking the streets of little Caldwell, Idaho, one snowy December evening in 1905. This is Frank Steunenberg, former governor of the state, banker, timber speculator, and the very image of Western respectability, self-assurance, and success. When he returns home, a bomb hidden under the garden gate is triggered, and Lukas's vast cyclorama of people, plots, subplots, and sub-subplots is set in motion.

Suspicion immediately falls on the labor-union leaders that Steunenberg had antagonized when, as governor, he used troops and martial law to put down a miners' strike in the Coeur dAlene region of Idaho. The bomber, soon arrested, is a drifter with union ties. Coaxed along by the Pinkerton agency's top detective, he spills out a confession that identifies three top officials of the radical Western Federation of Miners as conspirators who paid him to do the deed.

What transpires from there requires more than 700 pages of Lukas's deft prose. Every significant character gets carefully profiled. Pinkerton ace James McParland is drawn as a man obsessed by a conspiratorial view of unions as seedbeds of crime and anarchy. His earlier exploits as an undercover agent putting down murderous insurrection in Pennsylvania's coal district serve as prelude to his work on the Steunenberg case.

In a fascinating passage, Lukas examines how the Pinkertons and other private-detective agencies filled the gaps in official law enforcement in the young West. A standout gumshoe like McParland could - and did - become chief investigator, interrogator, and strategist for the prosecution.

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On the defense side, strategy was hammered out by an often contentious team that featured Clarence Darrow, who was rapidly becoming a legal legend by taking on unpopular defendants. His clients in Idaho - a trio of labor chiefs headed by the fiery William D. "Big Bill" Haywood - were reviled by the country's monied aristocracy, and by much of its political hierarchy. In the latter category was President Theodore Roosevelt, whose influence was brought to bear on the case by Idaho's Republican governor and leading newspaper editor. Whenever Lukas touches on a character, say Roosevelt, readers get much more than his connection to Idaho's tale of crime and punishment. A fleshed-out portrait emerges.

The biggest theme in "Big Trouble" is the turn-of-century collision between capitalist power - represented by almost everyone on the prosecutorial side, including the mine owners who paid many of the lawyers' and detectives' bills - and the egalitarian, often socialist, forces that challenged that power. Questions of income disparity and class, too, still reverberate in American national life. Back then, they positively thundered.

With that struggle underlying the story, things could have gotten dryly polemical. But Lukas is, above all, a brilliant reporter. Sometimes the meandering narrative veers far from the central events in Idaho. A lengthy chapter is devoted to the life and times of such sidelight but luminous characters as actress Ethel Barrymore and baseball star Walter Johnson. Incredibly, though, all intersect with the drama in Idaho. Sometimes Lukas's smorgasbord gets a little overrich - a bit like an intriguing Web site with more "links" than you can possibly explore. But if readers are not interested in a side essay on the state of the American theater in the early 20th century, or a close examination of the socialist press, move quickly to the next scene - the courtroom tensions back in Boise, where Big Bill Haywood will be hung if found guilty.

Through meticulous research and stylistic grace Lukas makes it all work. Sadly, the book will probably always be tied to his death by suicide last June. Reportedly, he was unhappy with the results of his 10 years of digging and writing. Readers willing to embark on this long, but rewarding literary journey will disagree with Lukas about that.

* Keith Henderson is a Monitor staff writer.

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