A union of laborers can't unify the heart

A lonely millworker tries - and fails - to act nobly

In Lowell, Mass., the National Park Service has turned the Boott Cotton Mills into a surprisingly interesting museum. Two summers ago, my family and I walked through the restored "mill girl" boardinghouse, a few 19th-century commercial buildings, and a weaving room, where we anxiously inserted ear plugs before our guide powered up the old looms. We pantomimed astonishment at the noise for 10 or 15 seconds. Of course, the original workers had no ear plugs - or, apparently, much hearing after a short time. The tour ended with a boat trip down the narrow canals that once powered these giant machines. The whole experience seemed so alien that we might as well have been crossing the River Styx.

Late in the afternoon, my daughter asked a question that reminded me how far we are from that way of life: "What's a textile mill?" I explained how the basic process of making cloth developed along with the unions that eventually brought livable conditions to such places. "What's a union?" she asked.

A debut novel by John Bemrose, called "The Island Walkers," weaves that difficult question through the whole fabric of a mill town in Ontario, Canada, during the 1960s. Shortlisted for the Giller Prize, Canada's most prestigious literary award, the book demonstrates Bemrose's success as a journalist and a poet, an author capable of clear-eyed narration and gorgeous description. Some readers may weary of the novel's omnivorous perspective, its almost desperate sense that nothing can be left out, but if that's a fault, it's an embarrassment of riches.

Alf Walker, the damaged hero of this tale, has worked his entire life in the mill, as did his father, who drowned in the water that powers it. Despite their modest circumstances, his wife puts on airs, an "engine of brisk English cheerfulness," waiting till they can join the better class of people.

At the opening of the novel, a resurgence of union talk threatens Alf's equilibrium and his wife's ambition. After World War II, a younger, rasher Alf had joined a strike which had cost him his job and left him determined never again to get entangled in those socialist pipe dreams. He warns his buddies away from the new recruiter, reminding them of the trouble back in 1949, but they persist with plans to organize.

Seen as a natural leader among the millworkers, Alf is soon called in by an executive and offered a promotion in exchange for the troublemakers' names. He tries to finesse this cruel bargain, but his muddled efforts only deny himself a promotion, irritate his wife, and cause his friends to lose their jobs.

To quell his loneliness, Alf begins sleeping with a vulnerable single mother, which, of course, brings further misery to everyone involved. Bemrose portrays Alf's tortured self-justification with searing accuracy: "His guilt had become a dark weight his body had accustomed itself to like a tree growing around a buried ax head."

After 23 years of marriage, his wife knows instinctively that something is wrong, but she resents his depression as another failure. "Silence between them could never merely be silence. It was night broken by the flight of coded messages, the riffling of dog-eared files."

So begins the agonizing dissolution of the Walker family, "like a scattering of billiard balls," a process that's carefully drawn to blend their own self-destructive decisions with larger social and economic forces. The union leader's socialist critique of the mill managers fades against the novel's more troubling critique of human nature. The masses come into focus as isolated individuals in a moral economy of their own making.

What's most remarkable, though, is Bemrose's unrelenting insight into the interior lives of all these characters - from Alf, whose ambition and lust repeatedly soil his good motives, down to his youngest child, little Jamie, who must deal alone with the tensions of class conflict and the terrors of sexual abuse. Young and old, they all struggle with the kind of moldy pain that's fertilized by silence.

Alf's oldest son, Joe, eventually emerges as the novel's real subject and the only possibility of faint hope in this story. He's a sensitive, mature high school senior, mulling over vague plans to become a college history teacher, a life reassuringly far from his parents' grim existence. But he feels unfairly burdened by the weight of his father's presence, "his sense that little had happened in his own life by comparison."

Infected more deeply than he would admit with his mother's high tastes, he falls in love with a rich student who's just arrived from Europe for a year. She's moody, sophisticated, and aloof in a way that makes her irresistible. The early scenes of his efforts to attract her attention and manage his consuming desire are full of the special agony and exhilaration that anyone who's ever fallen in love will revel in - or wince at. But as their relationship develops, Joe finds himself entangled in the same compromises and betrayals his father committed.

"The Island Walkers" is thick with natural beauty and social insight, but Bemrose has an overpowering sense of men's failings, as though adultery and disappointment were normal states only periodically interrupted by moments of fidelity and happiness. Nonetheless, the cumulative effect is a profoundly sensitive portrayal of a family's efforts to find its way through the tangled threads of desire and nobility, guilt and love.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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