Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Garden of Local News: 'Why I Wrote This Book'

When I speak at libraries about "Suosso's Lane," I begin with a brief introduction connecting the novel to the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti case. (I'll be speaking at Carver Public Library, 2 Meadowbrook Way, Carver MA this Saturday, May 14, 1 p.m.)
To explain the origins of the case I read my account in “Suosso’s Lane” of the 1920 crime for which the two men, Italian immigrants and professed anarchists, were found guilty and later executed. The crime was sensational daylight robbery of a shoe factory payroll and the murder of two payroll officers planned and executed in the

way as a professional criminal gang would do it. The chief of the Massachusetts state police said as much to the prosecution after Sacco and Vanzetti were charged with the crime. You've got the wrong guys, he said. The state prosecutors responded by removing him from the case and putting it into the hands of a small town police chief whose theory that anarchists were responsible for the robbery led to the arrests.
           Next, I address the question that readers almost ask an author: Why did you write this book? A good question, requiring a somewhat lengthy answer. After an outrageously biased trial in 1921 Sacco and Vanzetti, both of whom had witnesses from their own immigrant community placing them elsewhere on the day of the crime — “the Italians?” the state's governor would later say, “you can't believe them” — were convicted of murder. Their defense raised money to pay for legal challenges, delaying their execution until 1927. By that time the case had become an international cause celebre. In Europe, everyone from Albert Einstein to the Pope signed petitions demanding a new trial or a pardon or the outright release of Sacco and Vanzetti. Their cause was taken up by worker movements worldwide and demonstrations in their behalf were held literally all over the world. American justice was widely condemned because of this case.
           I was aware of the Sacco-Vanzetti case in general terms when I moved to Plymouth MA, home of the Pilgrims, and began work as an editor and reporter for a community newspaper called the Old Colony Memorial. But I did not know that Bartolomeo Vanzetti lived in Plymouth at the time of his arrest. Plymouth is very conscious of its Pilgrim history, there are statues and memorials and plaques throughout the old town center, but it pays no attention whatsoever to one of the principals in the Trial of the Century 100 years ago. 
           As a reporter I knew that the Sacco-Vanzetti case had been a big deal everywhere and that many nonfiction books have been written about it. But ‘Vanzetti in Plymouth’ is the local angle — and I was a local reporter. Working on a local history project for my newspaper, I looked into what was known about Vanzetti’s life in Plymouth by  scanning through microfilmed editions of my own paper and other newspapers in the Plymouth library. (I do love libraries; I wouldn’t be speaking about this book if it wasn’t for libraries). 
          I also read the most influential books on the case. As I learned more I grew to believe that the story of Vanzetti’s life in Plymouth — he spent five years there — offered a multi-faceted opening into a bigger story of what life was like for the industrial working class in Plymouth, and the rest of America, a century ago, a story that later generations are forgetting. It's a story that raises raising enduring issues in American society and politics, such as immigration, the negative stereotyping of national (or ethnic and religious) groups as undesirable others, bias in the criminal justice system, and the growing gap between rich and poor.
           “Suosso’s Lane,” named for the street in North Plymouth where Vanzetti lived in an immigrant neighborhood of mostly factory workers, dramatizes Vanzetti’s life in America, his outrage over the injustices he saw inflicted upon the working poor, and his growing commitment to the revolutionary anarchist cause. But the novel goes beyond recreating the historical past to connect Vanzetti’s story, and his world,  to our own world by also telling a 21st century story (also set in Plymouth) of people dealing today with many of the same issues. Despised "outsider" immigrant groups. An economic system that shuts the door to the “American dream” by exploiting the working poor. The centralization of political and monetary power in the hands of a few.
          The main characters in the contemporary story are Mill Becker, a young history teacher in his first real academic job, who moves with his wife into the house on Suosso’s Lane where Vanzetti once lived. A nosy local reporter named Mo Jeter (whose working life, by the way, is a lot more “adventurous” than mine ever was), who is investigating a real cold case, the 60-year-old suspicious death of a Plymouth policeman. How can this death connect to Sacco-Vanzetti case? Well, that’s what fiction is for.
And finally Ike Murisi, a ‘new immigrant’ who works at a big box store (I’m not allowed to name for legal reasons) and discovers parallels to Vanzetti’s story in his own life. While Ike takes low-paying service job to cobble together a living for himself and his wife, the criminal justice system complicates his life, and self-serving politicians seek only to make things harder for people like him.
           “Suosso’s Lane” is a big book. A frankly ambitious novel. It took me years to bring it to publication and I couldn’t be happier to see it finally in print. It’s now available as both an ebook and a paperback from the publisher,