Solidarity Forever: On The Ropes

Review by: Jason Nisavic (@Teaching_Humans)

My fifth year as a teacher almost began with a strike.  As the contract negotiation process between our union leaders and the administration stalled out, district-wide teacher meetings were held to survey our willingness to stick to our guns  Almost unanimously, our faculty expressed grim commitment.  Whispers of greed and corruption began to poison the community on both sides.  Administrators that I  consider myself friendly with (even today) grew cold and formal during this excessively awkward time.  For the first time, the day-to-day joy evaporated and I saw this career that I love as it really is: a sterile business arrangement forged in conflict.  Thankfully, a compromise was reached, and classes began normally.

I relate this story because, during my reading of On The Ropes by James Vance and Dan E. Burr, I was pervaded with a sense of shame at how tame our contract negotiations really were.

On The Ropes

The story follows a undercover labor organizer named Fred Bloch, weaving in and out between his present and past.  Fred joins a unionized circus that was formed by the Works Progress Administration, one of the most influential New Deal Programs.  In his time there he assists stuntman Gordon Corey, a broken alcoholic with a death wish.  Their side show attraction is simple: Gordon is handcuffed and a noose is tied to his neck.  On the count of three, Fred triggers the trap door.  Gordon has until the count of three to loosen the cuffs and save himself.

It’s a perfect metaphor for both the personal hell that our protagonists have found themselves in as well as the larger struggle of the working class in this time period.  Vance and Burr work well together to convey the desperation of the times as a backdrop to the story.  During the course of the book, we are reminded of exactly how bloody and painful the fight to form unions in the 20th Century actually was.  On The Ropes holds nothing back, showing the barbaric tactics of union-busting business owners at the time.  We see organizers being dragged from their beds by hired goons.  We see murder.  We are not-so-subtly lead to believe that multiple women are raped and killed.

Many other characters inhabit and expand the plot.  A female reporter past her prime and a precocious love interest highlight the plight of women in the 30’s working world.  The long-suffering manager of the circus gives us a manager’s agony over how to keep money flowing in tight times.  Throughout it all, there is rarely a moment of safety found in this book, and that’s the way it should be.  Students (age 17+, ideally) will come away with an engaging and humanizing impression of the depression, the rise of labor, and the lengths that those in power did and can go in the pursuit of maintaining the status quo.

What’s Great:

  • There’s a lot of bang for your buck in this book. Even if you paid the retail of $17.99 (easy to avoid since the book came out in 2013,) There are almost 250 gripping pages of art and story.  Plenty enough to occupy a longer car trip.
  • It’s accessible. Despite the mature themes, the book’s characters communicate at a relatively easy reading level.
  • That being said, On The Ropes is a period piece. That means that the characters make references that are appropriate and intuitive for the 1930’s but might challenge a modern student of history (e.g., characters referring to each other as “Trotsky.”)  This might be considered a drawback by some, but the story might draw forth inquiry about these references that could make for a good research project or discussion.
  • There’s a lot of sneaky learning going on in this book. Under the guise of dramatic action and character development, the story hits a great many Illinois state standards for social studies (that’s where I’m from) specifically using the context of the depression.  Including:
  1. SS.CV.8.9-12:  Analyze how individuals use and challenge laws to address a variety of public issues.
  2.  SS.CV.9.9-12:  Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes and related consequences.
  3. SS.H.3.9-12:  Evaluate the methods utilized by people and institutions to promote change.
  4. SS.H.5.9-12:  Analyze the factors and historical context that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.
  5. SS.H.6.9-12:  Analyze the concept and pursuit of the American Dream.
  6. SS.H.7.9-12:  Identify the role of individuals, groups, and institutions in people’s struggle for safety, freedom, equality and justice.
  7. SS.H.12.9-12:  Analyze the geographic and cultural forces that have resulted in conflict and cooperation.

It’s a cinch that if you live in a different state, your standards likely overlap with just about all of these.  Also, the book directly references the Republic Steel Massacre of 1937 which occurred just outside of Chicago!  This often overlooked real-life tragedy creates a turning point in Fred’s life and would make for a great discussion anchor.

What Could Be Better:

  • From a storytelling perspective, the two hired goons that serve as the main antagonists seem a little too ghoulishly superhuman to me. For most of the story, they pursue Fred with a terminator-like determination and relentlessness that took me out of the story.  It’s not until nearly the very end of the story that one of them gets a humanizing, semi-relatable backstory.  If most actual anti-union operatives were this grotesque, then the formation of the 20th Century labor unions is that much more miraculous to me.

How I would Use it:

Unfortunately, On The Ropes can’t be seamlessly woven into a high school curriculum.  It is far too heavy and involved to use as a general day-to-day classroom reading.  A U.S. History teacher couldn’t possibly give it enough time to be of any value AND make it to the modern day by the end of the school year!   The only types of classes that could give it due diligence would be either:

  • A tightly-focused high school “Topics in U.S. History” elective type class that I would saw my left arm off to teach OR
  • A 300+ level college course that used it as the discussion piece of a single class session.

In a more general setting, the only way I’d imagine using it is by making it part of a spring break reading assignment for honors+ level students.  Craft a project that will encourage them to use inductive thinking and use Fred’s experiences to draw conclusions about the lives of 1930’s Americans.  In any case, On The Ropes is a great casual read for a teacher to connect with those challenging times before diving into a Depression unit.  While you’re reading, play some Pete Seeger in the background.  It sets the tone well.

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Featured Photograph:

  • Title: Drill press operator, Allegheny Ludlum Steel[e] Corp., Brackenridge, Pa.
  • Creator(s): Palmer, Alfred T., photographer
  • Date Created/Published: [1941?]
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print