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Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America Paperback – July 6, 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

In June 1997, just months before publication of his latest book, Big Trouble, Pulitzer-winning journalist J. Anthony Lukas killed himself. He was 64 and, according to many accounts, had finally surrendered to a lifelong despair over what he saw as his inability to meet his own exceedingly high literary standards.

Yet in reading Big Trouble, a gripping account of murder and politics in turn-of-the-century Idaho, one can't help but think that Lukas was far too hard on himself. His last work is a well-told tale of the struggle between labor and capitalists in the West at a time when entire state legislatures were effectively owned by corporate interests and America teetered on the brink of open class warfare.

The story begins with the 1905 assassination of Frank Steunenberg, an ex- governor of Idaho. His murder was rumored to be the work of vengeful labor bosses, and Pinkerton detective James McParland tracked Wobbly organizer Big Bill Haywood all the way to Colorado to bring him back to stand trial, where he and two other men were defended by a team of lawyers that included Clarence Darrow.

During the writing of Common Ground, his account of Boston's painful process of school desegregation in the 1970s, Lukas became intrigued by what he called race's "twin issue": class. "The more I delved into Boston's crisis," he writes in the foreword to Big Trouble, "the more I found the conundrums of race and class inextricably intertwined." Class simply wasn't as overt an issue as race in contemporary society. What Lukas needed was a time and place where class and class struggle were open and visible. He found it in Idaho in 1905, a time of change and uncertainty, when any notion of a large American middle class was still a distant dream. In order to make this era comprehensible to modern readers, Lukas has gone great lengths in Big Trouble to re-create the entire social, political, and economic context of the murder trial. Here are the histories not simply of mining, railroads, and unions, but of detectives, "modern" journalism, baseball, land speculation, and frontier-town boosterism. In its capacity to translate historical facts into an engrossing, insightful read, Big Trouble stands as a final testament to Lukas's well-deserved reputation as a top reporter of America's growing pains.

From Library Journal

Multiple Pulitzer Prize winner Lukas (Common Ground, LJ 1/86), who recently committed suicide at age 64, aspires in his final book to use the 1905 assassination of Frank Steunenberg, governor of Idaho, as a platform from which to survey the panorama of the turn-of-the-century's incessant labor strife. The murder, investigation, and trial quickly became a cause for business, labor, and law enforcement, both private and public. Lukas attempts to gather every thread of the events and actors' movements in the era's passionate, troubled labor history; he follows every digression and subplot and gives each character a minibiography. Given the fascinations of the subject and Lukas's skills as a wordsmith, individual segments of the book are most compelling indeed. As a whole, though, the maze of convolutions will discourage less-determined (and less-leisured) readers. The book nevertheless merits a place in academic collections.
-?Fritz Buckallew, Univ. of Central Oklahoma Lib., Edmond
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (July 6, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684846179
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684846170
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #603,468 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 24, 1999
Format: Paperback
It was with great sadness that I learned of Anthony Lukas' death. Having been prompted by 'Big Trouble' to read his other prize winning book 'Common Ground', I am convinced we've lost a major talent and human being. Having lived in Boise, Idaho, this account of the murder of the Governor during the turn of the century was fascinating. Readers may be interested to know that the Idanha Hotel, where many of the key figures lived during the trial still bears their famous names on the room doors. The book is so exhaustively researched that details of conversations come out allowing it to be read almost like a novel. I found the diversions helpful in illuminating and embellishing the atmosphere and culture of the day. The beauty of this book is that you learn about so many different historical events and issues, not just the one at the center of the story. I highly recommend this book.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By John A. Lefcourte VINE VOICE on December 8, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Don't read this book if all you want to know about is the murder trial of Bill Haywood, defended by Clarence Darrow, and others- that is only the thread upon which the book hangs. The diversions are what make the book unique and which provide the varied dimensions that make one sense,and feel, in three dimensions, life at the turn of the last century. It is a stereopticon view. It is hard to conceive of any facet of turn-of-the-century American life which isn't explored, and described, in depth. If you don't like detail then avoid this book. I was constantly overwhelmed by the research that went into it, the amazing time and effort. The style is not dry but riveting and alive. It is a book that I wish I could say I produced, how anyone can give it less than five stars is beyond me. That the author committed suicide because he felt he failed is, truly, a tragedy, but it is impossible to see how he could have matched this effort in the rest of his lifetime. I read "Common Ground" when it first came out, the author's first book, it was good but this is great. I know of no other historical work that so totally conveys the sense of time and place as does this book.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Samuel W. Harnish, Jr. on June 1, 2000
Format: Paperback
This is a big book. I hear that if it wasn't for the editors it would be even larger. That much can be seen before you read it.
What can not be seen, and what it does better than any non-fiction book I've read in quite a while, is to tell the story of a time. What was the turn of the (last) century really like? Well, as you will find here, there was a lot going on. There's class warfare. There's corruption. There's a tremendous growth, and tremendous change.
If you want to know about all of these things, this is the book for you. If you want a quick recap of the trial that forms the "backbone" of the book, this is not the book. You will, from time to time, get frustrated by the side tracks, you will wonder why there is so much here about other things. If you stick with it, you will come away understanding many of the forces that led to the 'Progressive' reforms a couple decades later, and you will meet many very interesting people along the way.
Stick with it... You'll be glad you did.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey L. Cordell on April 21, 2006
Format: Paperback
I'm a police officer with the City of Caldwell, Idaho. When we first moved to the city (approximately 35,000 now)we lived one block from the old Stubenburg residence.

From a purely personal view point I found the book to be fascinating. The details were necessary. The book gives you an in-depth look at a specific time in the country's history. The extensive backgrounds that he provided for the many characters were also essential. For not only do they help the reader to understand the involved people, but their pasts also help to explain why the nation was like it was in 1906.

In many respects the book is almost an anti-western. By 1906 the Western United States was no longer the frontier, but many still viewed it that way. However the so-called "modern" world was now a presence. All the many social issues that we are still dealing with were a very real concern for those people in 1906 as well.

I feel that Lukas did an excellent job showing this time and the many tensions that exsisted. And whether he meant to or not Lukas also showed that we aren't so far removed from our ancestors. They too were convinved that their time was the worst and that the world was going to hell in a handbasket.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By J. Frakes on January 12, 2001
Format: Paperback
All the information about what this book is about is covered already. I just want to state that those who find this encompassing story in need of an editor to reduce detail or think of episodes in this work divergent are missing an important aspect of this book: it is well paced and told in marvelous detail--paced as in turn-of-the-century, horsedrawn, strolling paced; and detailed to the extent an important historical event should be. This isn't CNN. But the feel of life 100 years ago is here. The older I get, the less distant that seems as far as time, but how incredibly different in lifestyle. If you approach it that way, it's a journey. If you suffer a dose of paranoia about big business and big government, this isn't going to help. It names names and spells out the behind the doors power movement. I was reading it during the courtroom frenzy over counting election votes in Florida. Some things haven't changed all that much.
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