In a stunning literary achievement -- with a power and scope in the tradition of John Steinbeck and Theodore Dreiser -- Luis J. Rodriguez captures the soul of a community and a little-known era in America's history in his epic novel about love, family, workers' rights, industrial strife, and cultural dislocation.
When the Salcido family departs for the United States, their flight is hardly different from the journeys of the indigenous tribes who roamed America for tens of thousands of years, or immigrants who sailed across entire oceans, or countless others who have left their native lands behind for the promise of a better life.
Traveling mostly on foot, Procopio Salcido and his future wife, Eladia, leave Mexico for the United States to escape the bleak realities of their homeland.
Finally settling in Los Angeles, the young couple discover that the hopes they have for their children must now be weighed against the backdrop of the mighty Nazareth steel mill, their engine for survival, which will eventually become the lifeblood of their own American dream.
Spanning sixty years and three generations, Music of the Mill is set in the industrial boom of post–World War II Southern California, where jobs seemed plentiful, communities thrived, and racial harmony prevailed. However, while postwar prosperity seemed to supply jobs to many migrant African American, Mexican, and poor white workers, in reality there was great struggle and racial discord -- low-paying, backbreaking labor and the cruel manipulation by manufacturers who pitted groups of workers against one another.
For the Salcidos -- especially for Procopio's idealistic son, Johnny, and his young family -- the hard knocks of life often resound louder than their own sense of hope. When their aspirations have long since lost their luster, retaining their dignity and sense of worth becomes the family's greatest challenge.
Destined to be a classic of American literature, Music of the Mill, the long-awaited first novel by Luis J. Rodriguez, portrays the journey of one family caught in a web of politics, racial polarization, and corrupt unions' power struggles, revealing the drama, pain, joy, and humor of working-class life.
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Luis J. Rodriguez is the author of several critically acclaimed books, including Always Running, The Republic of East L.A., and Hearts and Hands, as well as poetry and books for children. He lives with his family in California.From The Washington Post:
In his first novel, Luis J. Rodriguez gives an intimate, multi-generational history of a family surviving gang life in the Los Angeles barrios, which the author knew as a child and has written about in memoirs, poetry and short stories. Those earlier books (The Republic of East L.A., Always Running) brought the rough intensity of contemporary street life to the page. Now in Music of the Mill, Rodriguez has moved his focus back a generation to tell the story of Johnny Salcido, who struggles for a life in a Los Angeles steel mill.
The Salcido saga begins in the northern Mexican state of Sonora in 1943. Procopio Salcido, a hard-working 18-year-old, knows that his family's rural way of life is coming to an end when the government dams the nearest river, starving the farms and their people of water. So Procopio walks out of the house one morning and just keeps going. He winds up in Arizona, working in the mines, but is shot in the leg after helping lead a strike for better wages. He escapes with the lovely Eladia, a girl he met at the camp.
The teenage couple make their way to Los Angeles, where Procopio gets a grungy job cleaning up at a huge mill called Nazareth Steel (apparently a play on Bethlehem Steel). The massive, brutally run plant draws thousands of impoverished workers -- Mexicans, blacks and whites. On the mill floor, the union is dominated by a cell of the Ku Klux Klan, which preserves the trade skills and best paying jobs for whites. Blacks and Mexicans are relegated to infernally hot, dangerous, back-breaking labor. Still, the pay is comparatively good, and Procopio and Eladia settle in to their difficult life. As the years pass, their first-born son is killed in a suspicious accident at the mill. Another winds up an alcoholic. And finally there is Johnny, a fistful of teenage trouble, who gets out of jail, falls in love and enters the mill himself.
Rodriguez portrays the mill as a heroic microcosm of industrial America. There are brutal struggles between unions and management and clashes of race and culture on the foundry floor -- where it is all too easy for workers to arrange an "accident" to mutilate or kill rivals: One worker is impaled, another loses four fingers.
As Johnny ages, he learns lessons of good will from some of the men on the floor and lessons in brutality from the rest. It's not a nice place to work, but when the mill eventually closes, the Salcidos and thousands of other families are devastated. "Nothing in their lives or in their children's lives can compare with the years Johnny . . . had known when Nazareth was at its peak," Rodriguez writes, "when the electric furnaces rumbled day and night and the rolling mills and forges roared in frenzied intonations . . . when foremen sent out signals with their hands because they couldn't be heard amid the noise; when production goals were posted on huge plywood signs, and safety messages kept reminding the mill hands they were responsible for losing body parts or their lives; and when the terrible fate and great fortune of being a steelworker was sloughed off in the bars, card clubs, prostitutes and racing businesses."
Rodriguez sees all this in grand historical terms, and his narrative drive and compassion for the Salcidos shine through, giving the book restless energy. Some technical problems mar the story, though. Plot points -- a major union election, for example -- are set up, but there is not follow-through. The tense lapses from present to past and back again. The bad guys are cardboard racists who illustrate a position more than a person. The last third of the book is taken over by Johnny's daughter, Azucena. Her father and grandfather largely disappear, which is disappointing, because they are far more compelling characters.
By then, the mill is long gone, the Salcidos have moved to a new suburb, and their immigrant drive has lost its focus. Azucena is of Mexican descent, yes, but she's American now. The new life Procopio set out for two generations earlier has become filled with disillusionment, alcoholism, rape and bad breaks. The mill had its music, but nobody said it was pretty.
Reviewed by Neely Tucker
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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Book Description Rayo, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0060560762
Book Description Rayo, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # P110060560762
Book Description Rayo. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. 0060560762 New Condition. Bookseller Inventory # NEW7.0949547