Fire in the Hole, by Sybil Downing

Review by Martha Quillen

Ludlow Massacre – January 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

Fire In The Hole
by Sybil Downing
published in 1996 by University Press of Colorado

Fire in the Hole is an historical novel about a Denver socialite, who also happens to be a young widow and lawyer. From the very beginning, it’s pretty clear where Alexandra MacFarlane is going after she accepts a working-class client who has been arrested in the corrupt labor struggles that culminated in what’s now called “the Ludlow massacre.”

Anyone with an inkling of Colorado history, (or without it for that matter, since the Ludlow massacre is mentioned on the cover), will know what awaits MacFarlane as she wanders from coal camp to coal camp, and from corrupt official to belligerent politician, trying to glean information about the arrest of her client.

The reader’s trouble comes in caring.

According to the story, MacFarlane has actually wined, dined, and hobnobbed with the politicians and industrialists whose corruption is rapidly precipitating tragedy at Ludlow. As novels go, it’s an interesting concept — that this woman will have to recognize the unthinking cruelty of her own social class and her acquaintances as she delves into her client’s world. But from first to last, the MacFarlane character is an intractable fence-sitter.

When she arrives, MacFarlane believes union organizers have made this situation untenable by contributing money and political indignation to a seething labor dispute. And she pretty much believes the same thing when she leaves.

In the interim, Mac Farlane realizes that wages, living conditions, accidents, substandard housing, and child labor make the miners’ lives miserable, but she still steadfastly divides the blame for the tragic events at Ludlow between the industrialists and unionists.

After MacFarlane realizes that the mining magnates will not abide by labor laws, that the police will not protect laborers, and that no one will enforce the constitutional rights of miners — after she finds out that strikers and union sympathizers are being arrested, imprisoned, and even murdered — MacFarlane still doesn’t want to take sides.

The heroine of this novel doesn’t believe in unions, and she doesn’t think much of strikes. And that may be a reasonable position — since the lives of many working men, women, and children came to a sudden and violent end when strikes entered the picture.

But the reader doesn’t get any idea of how character MacFarlane, or author Downing, think the appalling living conditions of those who died at Ludlow could have been corrected without the intervention of unions.

INSTEAD, Downing creates a fictional heroine who never really comes to terms with any of the huge schisms introduced in the narrative. From first to last, MacFarlane is never a well-developed character. Though she sheds a few tears, now and again, she never really seems changed by the death and mayhem she encounters. And when, to her astonishment, she falls in love with a lowly District Attorney instead of an aristocrat of equal social position, that hardly seems like a profound transition.

Even worse, though, MacFarlane shares this novel with a bewildering number of other characters who are not very well-defined and who, even more confusingly, run the gamut from entirely fictional, to somewhat fictional, to real.

Instead of offering a compelling look at the era, or into labor conditions or the Ludlow massacre, the author tries to illuminate the complex legal and legislative machinations of the players. And that leads Downing into a detailed but confusing portrayal of events, peopled by a disordered tangle of fictional and real characters.

Such a mix of fictional and non-fictional characters is pretty standard in historical novels, but in Downing’s novel it muddies any real historical insight. No one, for example, expected Margaret Mitchell to replace William Tecumseh Sherman with a fictional counterpart. But it’s another thing entirely to allow a fictional character to lay claim to the authentic accomplishments of real people.

In Downing’s book, MacFarlane is the one who gets Ludlow into the press. She’s the one who calls for a congressional investigation. She’s the one who makes Ludlow into an historical event rather than just another buried and sordid labor dispute.

I found this particularly unfortunate because the book was published as part of a Women’s West series, intended to recognize “the exciting contributions of women in the American West.” Yet Downing casts a rich, white lady-bountiful to go down to Trinidad and save the day.

And that strikes me as a grotesque disservice to the actual men and women who lived and died at Ludlow, and to the real onlookers, reporters, and investigators who brought those matters to light — despite personal risk. It just didn’t seem right to credit a fictional character for initiating so much historical reality, especially when the real Mother Jones was in Trinidad.

(And it seemed especially dubious to invent a rich, white, blue-blooded woman to save poor, uneducated, immigrant laborers.)

IT’S NOT THAT Fire in The Hole was a terrible novel. It’s actually a pretty standard, grade B romance. But there are better romances out there, and some of them are even about this topic. Some years back, genre romance queen Jude Deveraux released Twin of Ice and Twin of Fire, two books about a fictional town — which clearly seems to be a thinly disguised Trinidad.

Although Deveraux’s books revel in a Raiders of the Lost Ark style of combining entertainment, adventure, and silliness with history — they also do a far better job than Fire in The Hole at capturing the pathos, conditions, and tear-jerking tragedy of the times.

But I’m afraid I expected even more than that from a serious historical novel. Historical fiction is vital because it can inspire an interest in history.

But even more importantly, serious historical literature explores and identifies the real lessons of history — by examining human nature with an historical perspective. When one reflects on Puritan New England, our viewpoint has undoubtedly been enlivened by fiction penned by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller centuries after the fact.

Though history generally presents facts, names, dates, and events more coherently than literature, good literature can supply meaning, perspective, or even a moral to the story. Fire In the Hole, on the other hand, doesn’t really offer anything that couldn’t be gathered more easily by reading reference books.

For those who really, truly, hate history books, however, this novel does give the reader a passable idea of some of the issues involved in Ludlow.

Yet even so, I found this novel very disappointing. Even though I didn’t actually expect a classic this time around, I figured a university-published novel should at least try to grapple with the bigger themes — rather than avoid them entirely.

— Martha Quillen