I’ll be speaking about “Suosso’s Lane,” a novel about the Sacco-Vanzetti case, and reading a few excerpts at the Carver Library, 2 Meadowbrook Way (Carver MA) on Saturday, May 14, at 1 p.m. in the large meeting room. Here’s the library’s press release:
“Robert Knox will talk about his new book which tells a compelling tale of ethnic profiling and death row injustice set in Plymouth MA in both the early decades of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st. A then-and-now novel, Suosso’s Lane reconstructs the Sacco and Vanzetti case but also addresses the still timely issues of immigration, ethnic group prejudice, the widening gap between rich and poor, and failures in our criminal justice system. Bob will have books available for sale and signing. Everyone is welcome and refreshments will be served.”
When I speak at libraries, I begin with a brief introduction connecting the novel to the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti case. Then I read my account in “Suosso’s Lane.” of the 1920 crime for which the two men, Italian immigrants and professed anarchists, were found guilty and later executed. The crime was sensational daylight robbery of a shoe factory payroll and the murder of two payroll officers planned and executed just as a professional criminal gang would do it. The chief of the Massachusetts state police said as much to the prosecution after Sacco and Vanzetti were charged with the crime, so prosecutors removed him from the case and put it into the hands of a small town police chief whose theory that anarchists were responsible for the robbery led to the arrests.
Then I address the question that readers almost ask an author: Why did you write this book?
After an outrageously biased trial in 1921 Sacco and Vanzetti, two immigrants who both had witnesses from their own community placing them elsewhere on the day of the crime — “you can’t believe them,” the state governor would later say, “they’re Italians” — were convicted of murder. Their defense raised money to pay for legal challenges, delaying their execution until 1927. By that time the case was an international cause celebre. In Europe everyone from Albert Einstein to the Pope signed petitions demanding a new trial or pardon or the outright release of Sacco and Vanzetti. Their cause was taken up by worker movements world wide and demonstrations in their behalf were held literally all over the world. American justice was condemned because of this case.
I was aware of the Sacco-Vanzetti case in general terms when I moved to Plymouth MA, home of the Pilgrims, and began work as an editor and reporter for a community newspaper called the Old Colony Memorial. But I did not know that Bartolomeo Vanzetti lived in Plymouth at the time of his arrest. Plymouth is very conscious of its Pilgrim origins, there are statues and memorials and plaques throughout the old town center, but it pays no attention whatsoever to one of the principals in the Trial of the Century 100 years ago. As a reporter I knew that the Sacco-Vanzetti case had been a big deal everywhere. Many nonfiction books have been written about it.
But ‘Vanzetti in Plymouth’ is the local angle — and I was a local reporter. Working on a local history project for my newspaper, I looked into what was known about Vanzetti’s life in Plymouth by scanning through microfilmed editions of the OCM and other newspapers — in the Plymouth library. (I do love libraries; I wouldn’t be speaking about this book if it wasn’t for libraries). A single glance at a 1920s newspaper confirms that the world really was a different place 100 years ago. Would the local newspaper really ignore a big international story in which a local resident was a key figure? Well, pretty much.
I also read the most influential books on the case. As I learned more, I grew to believe that the story of Vanzetti’s life in Plymouth — he spent about five years there — offered a multi-faceted opening into a bigger story of what life was like for the industrial working class in Plymouth, and the rest of America, a century ago (a story that later generations are forgetting) — as well raising enduring issues in American society and politics. Such as: immigration, the negative stereotyping of national (or ethnic and religious) groups as undesirable others, bias in the criminal justice system, and the growing gap between rich and poor.
“Suosso’s Lane,” named for the street in North Plymouth where Vanzetti lived in an immigrant neighborhood of mostly factory workers, dramatizes Vanzetti’s life in America, his outrage over the injustices he saw inflicted upon the working poor, and his growing commitment to the revolutionary anarchist cause. But the novel goes beyond recreating the historical past to connect Vanzetti’s story, and his world, to our own world by also telling a 21st century story, also set in Plymouth, of people dealing today with some of the same issues. Despised immigrant groups. An economic system that shuts the door to the “American dream” by exploiting the working poor. The centralization of political and monetary power in the hands of a few.
The main characters in the contemporary story include Mill Becker, a young history teacher in his first real academic job, who moves with his wife into the house on Suosso’s Lane where Vanzetti once lived. Also a nosy local reporter Mo Jeter (whose working life, btw, is a lot more “adventurous” than mine ever was), who is investigating a real cold case, the 60-year-old suspicious death of a Plymouth policeman. How can this death connect to Sacco-Vanzetti case? Well that’s what fiction is for.
And finally Ike Murisi, the ‘new immigrant’ who works at a big box store (I’m not allowed to name for legal reasons) and discovers parallels to Vanzetti’s story in his own life. While Ike takes low-paying service job to cobble together a living for himself and his wife, the criminal justice system complicates his life, and self-serving politicians seek only to make things harder for people like him.
“Suosso’s Lane” is a big book. An ambitious novel. It took me years to bring it to publication and I couldn’t be happier to see it finally in print. It’s now available as both an ebook and a paperback from the publisher, Web-e-Books.com.