Compares economic slavery of past and present
In a new novel based on the life of Mother Jones, champion of the working class, the plight of the working poor during the worst days of the American Industrial Revolution is compared to those laboring in today’s job market.
When West Virginia author Jerry Ash set out to write Hellraiser — Mother Jones: An Historical Novel, he intended to simply tell her story in a more intimate fashion.
“Mother Jones took over,” Ash says, and used the novel to retell her story in a way that gives new perspective to the economic inequalities seen today between the super-rich and the working poor.”
The novel is an action-packed story told by Mother Jones during the five months she spends in jail in West Virginia facing murder charges for the role she played in one of the battles fought during the coal wars here.
From jail she flashes back to the beginning of her 65-year saga as the wife of a union organizer in Memphis, Tenn. Then she leads the reader through a career of hell raising with at least one dramatic episode in every chapter.
Included is a personal account of the Great Chicago Fire, the famous riot in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, the coal wars in West Virginia and Colorado, and railroad strikes from Martinsburg, W.Va., to Pittsburgh where a demonstration erupts into a major riot. Readers see child labor first hand in the cotton mills of the South, the textile mills of the North and they travel with Mother Jones on her March of the Mill Children from Philadelphia to New York City.
Serious social, political and economic threads run through all these stories and extend into the here and now. The themes include the inherent conflict between capitalism and democracy, and a comparison between the issue of human slavery during the Civil War and economic slavery during the Industrial Revolution.
Economic slavery is most clearly seen in the isolated coal camps of West Virginia where families are ill-treated, poorly paid and enslaved by their debts to the company store. Just as tragic are the lives of people working in the cotton mills of the South and the sweatshops of the North.
In the last chapter, the spirit of Mother Jones returns to find the industrial economy of her day has been replaced by a retail and service economy. The inequality between the richest and the poorest is as great or greater than during the domination of the robber barons of the past.
She uses Walmart as one example, noting that Walmart has been described as the “Welfare Queen” of America with up to 80 percent of its employees receiving food stamps. In 2011 Walmart’s CEO, a millionaire many times over, received a compensation package of over $18 million. He earned more in one hour than a Walmart worker earns in a year.
At the same time Mother Jones notices a study published in the American Sociological Review which shows union membership among men in the private sector between 1973 and 2007 dropped from 34 percent to 8 percent. For women it was from 16 percent to 6 percent. During the same period, wage inequality in the private sector increased by more than 40 percent.
Mother Jones doesn’t entirely blame the capitalists, however.
“I believe the decline in unions lies as much with the misdirected performance of organized labor as it does with the guile of capitalists,” she says.
As in the past she remains undaunted:
“Now, what are you going to do about that?” she asks. One way is to “keep Mother Jones alive and raising hell,” she says. “I know I will.”
Jerry Ash’s career titles include university professor, newspaper editor/publisher, legislator, association executive, management consultant and author of eight books on the subjects of history, business and knowledge management. This is his first historical novel. Available on Amazon. Contact the author or buy the book at