A Trial In Summer
- Ann McLaughlin
- Daniel & Daniel
- 240 pp.
- Reviewed by Susan Green
- May 16, 2011
While framed by legal proceedings against a 1930s union organizer, the “trial” in this thought-provoking novel is a young woman’s struggle to define herself and her future.
Reviewed by Susan M. Green
Ann McLaughlin’s latest novel is loosely based on an historic legal proceeding. In the mid-1930s, Australian-born Harry Bridges led West Coast longshoremen in protesting brutal working conditions. Bridges then helped the workers organize a union to fight for higher pay and less onerous conditions on the docks. With prompting from the shipping industry, government officials sought to deport Bridges because of his alleged membership in the Communist Party. After a four-month hearing, the judge ruled that the government had failed to prove its case, and ordered Bridges released from custody. Thereafter, Bridges founded the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and served as its president for over 40 years.
McLaughlin uses these events to frame her beginning-to-come-of-age story. In the summer of 1939, an idealistic college freshman accompanies her law professor father to San Francisco while he judges the deportation case of a labor leader accused of being a Communist. Lorie Bronson is an avid photographer whose pictures highlight the human cost of unemployment, poor housing and lack of medical care. Lorie sees her camera not as a shield between herself and the poor, but as a tool to reveal and improve people’s lives. She hopes to use her summer to photograph longshoremen and their families, to document their day-to-day struggles and support their unionization efforts. Ultimately she plans to follow her father into a legal career.
As a long-time union lawyer, I was eager to read a story based on an American labor icon. I expected an account of trial testimony and procedure, all in the context of an epic political battle between labor and capital. In fact, the deportation hearing in the novel takes place almost entirely off-stage. The “trial” of the title actually refers to the struggle of an adolescent girl to leave childhood behind. As in most good novels, the setting is less important than the conflicts within and between characters.
Lorie’s father discourages her efforts to focus on the longshoremen. He views photography as, at best, merely a hobby and urges Lorie to pay attention to her studies. He scoffs at the sentimentality of “do-gooders” who “look at pretty pictures of some social crisis and think because they feel sad or alarmed, they can do something. … Photographs can goad the conscience, I suppose, but they don’t constitute knowledge of the economic and social realities.” He insists that she steer clear of the docks and tenements and instead concentrate on landmarks like the Coit Tower and the lavish houses on Russian Hill.
Lorie hears a different message from her stepmother’s Aunt Luciana, who exhorts Lorie to pursue photography despite her father’s disparaging remarks. “Some people look at the ills in the world and think they must rush out and reform things. They become liberal politicians, lawyers or social workers.” By contrast, she asserts, “art is more important. Art can bring about deep changes; art can last.”
Given the book’s focus on Lorie’s struggle to grow up, perhaps it is not surprising that I found my experience as a daughter more relevant than my expertise as a labor lawyer. As in many good novels, the author drew upon her personal history as well as events that made headlines. Ann McLaughlin’s father, an eminent professor and law school dean, had served as the trial examiner in Bridges’ deportation hearing. Of course it is unfair and reductionist to view Lorie as a proxy for the author; A Trial in Summer is no more an autobiography than it is an historical account of a noteworthy legal proceeding. Nonetheless the novel describes many of the intricacies of the father-daughter relationship. Lorie alternately marvels at her father’s charisma and finds his pronouncements boring. She both yearns to follow in his professional footsteps and resents his attempt to steer her into a specialized labor history seminar. This quintessentially adolescent ambivalence is not resolved by the novel’s ending; such conflicts rarely end in tidy conclusions. Whatever complicated set of reasons prompted McLaughlin to choose this particular story, its power lies in the author’s depiction of the complex and conflicted relationship between a daughter and her father, rather than the struggle between labor and management.
Like her protagonist, Ann McLaughlin chose art. A Trial in Summer offers an unusual look at a familiar story. Bravo to McLaughlin for her imaginative and thought-provoking work.
Susan M. Green, a lawyer with over 20 years’ experience representing working people and their unions, served as Chief Labor Counsel to Senator Edward M. Kennedy from 1996-99. Among other works, she has written Congressional testimony, speeches, op-eds, and book reviews.