Tag Archives: politics

War Must Ensue

A Novel
by Adam Schuitema

A sleepy tourist town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula awaits a coming invasion. Haymaker thrives on tourists who visit in the winter for an opportunity to tackle nature and those who visit in the summer to hike the dunes, soaking up some Lake Superior sun. The local Haymakes, as Schuitema names them, appreciate these tourists with a tight smile as they pass through, dropping funds along the way. The locals know that they need these strangers, and they accept this because these strangers leave. But a group of outsiders, joined by a common belief, have their eyes set on Haymaker as their potential utopia.Haymaker 719-5

A group of libertarians migrate in a pack, calling themselves the Black Bears, and head to Haymaker. These individuals have families, careers, and lives that they’ve decided to uproot because they have an inherently American belief: Freedoms should not be tread upon. Haymaker has a history of small government, self-reliance, and free markets. Haymaker has land for sale and few zoning laws. Haymaker could be their headquarters.

However, while the Black Bears raise the common flags of rattlesnakes and freedom, they orchestrate a military-like invasion of a small town, planning to overtake the small government by force of majority. By sheer numbers, they claim, they will win elections. Local Haymakes will come around.

Backed by a scripture-quoting billionaire who may have ties to the federal government, this group plans for resistance in Haymaker, not peaceful integration. They send out flyers and recruitment ads, trying to gain in numbers what they may lack in local acceptance. Their plans proceed until a small few realize that their actions, however good their intentions, do not align with libertarianism, and that the locals are not signing over their town easily. The voice of reason in the Libertarian group is a family man, Josef Novak, who wants to integrate with the locals, understand them, and enjoy their already-libertarian lifestyle. Haymakes describe Josef as a vanilla moderate; he’s a hard guy to hate, they say. But Josef must quiet the extremists in his midst, while battling vandalizing locals, for this migration to be successful.

In Adam Schuitema’s Haymaker, a setting develops that becomes as real as elephant ears and sticky fingers at a Michigan town fair. While this sleepy community comes alive in Schuitema’s descriptions of the Shipwreck Cafe, year-round Christmas shop, and breathtaking heat along the dunes of Lake Superior, the novel takes heart within characters such as Josef, as the best stories often do. Schuitema’s complex story of a tense and changing political landscape in small-town USA simplifies and settles into the story of a mayor expecting her first child with a mentally unstable husband. It resonates the most, however, with a community member named Theodor Roosevelt.

switchgrass niu logoCalled “the cowboy” because of his taste for all-white dusters, Stetsons, and cowboy boots, Haymakes consider Roosevelt an outsider, too, although he’s been a resident for many decades. As a transplant, Roosevelt seems to watch Haymaker from above. He mingles with the locals, but many avoid him because of his transplant status and eccentric ways.

Roosevelt acts as the voice of reason. A welcome voice that speaks of compromise, Roosevelt is a party line-toer who claims no concrete allegiances. He is also a kind, grandfatherly man with an intricate past of his own. His past is an open book, he claims, if anyone cares to ask instead of speculate. This tall, white-haired man cuts a figure wherever he goes, but few approach him. He lives alone on the shoreline of Lake Superior in a house he cares for greatly and in solitude, which he treasures as well. When battles break out on the streets and in the homes of Haymaker, Roosevelt becomes an anchor for the town. If any of Schuitema’s characters embody the freedom-seeking self-reliance of libertarianism, it’s Roosevelt, a calm and rational man who claims no party.

The events, while at times slow-moving, that occur in Haymaker outline the tensions between extremes. Without flexibility on both sides, war must ensue. Schuitema writes a relevant story of current events that makes Haymaker’s name seem flexible, as if it could become that of any small town across America. A read to pair with classic works of Paine, maybe a bit of Orwell and most certainly with Rand, Schuitema’s first novel resonates as a real-life American example of the current and changing state of democracy, and what real American’s across demographics believe that term to mean. Yet, it reads as an engaging short story with a weaving, character-driven plot and not a word out of place.

Four-Star Review

April 2015, Switchgrass Books/NIU Press
$17.95, paperback, 300 pages
ISBN: 978-0-87580-719-5

Reviewed by Mindy M. Jones



Filed under fiction

Politics and Poison

Chicago 1907, a Corrupt System, an Accused Killer, and the Crusade to Save Him
by Steve Shukis

A charismatic, resolute Catholic priest takes on Chicago’s corrupt, turn-of-the-twentieth century political machine in Poisoned, a meticulously researched, true-life account of the fight to save a self-professed-innocent death row inmate.

Herman Billik acknowledged having a romantic fling with Rose Vrzal, a married mother of seven from Chicago’s ethnic Bohemian Pilsen neighborhood. But he vehemently denied poisoning her—and her husband and four daughters—with arsenic.

Poisoned coverDespite evidence that someone else may have committed the murders in 1905 and 1906—and that key witnesses later lied on the stand based on illegal interrogation and coercion by investigators—Billik remained incarcerated for a decade as a politically allied ring of officials from the Cook County coroner to the state’s attorney, to the trial judge, to the Chicago chief of police all the way up to the governor of Illinois, fought both actively and through intentional inaction to keep his conviction from being overturned.

The political landscape of the day ultimately becomes the story in Poisoned. That landscape was one in which decisions were based not on justice for the wrongly accused, but on damage control, especially in election years, with any admission of witness tampering, payoffs, and other illegal tactics tantamount to political suicide. It nearly supersedes in interest the actual facts of the Billik case.

Not that the facts are boring. Soap opera-like, the 1907 trial riveted the nation, and quickly became a bona fide media circus. With the proceedings on their doorstep, Chicagoans clamored for front-row seats.

In the summer of 1907, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox were top contenders for the upcoming World Series. “But the hottest ticket in town was for Judge Barnes’ courtroom,” Shukis writes. “Men in neckties and bowler hats, and ladies in floor-length dresses, their wide-brimmed hats decorated with feathers and ribbons, filled every seat in the room, and it would stay that way for the entire trial.”

The twists that should have—but failed to—save Billik are often jaw dropping. “Clues were brought forward, but only some were investigated,” Shukis writes.

Shukis notes that the depth of corruption was evident in the fact that an assistant coroner’s physician named Henry Reinhardt found no arsenic in the body of William Niemann. Niemann, a son-in-law of the murdered Vrzal family, died mysteriously in November 1907 while he was married to Emma Vrzal Niemann, a surviving daughter who many suspected was the true murderer. Had arsenic been found in Niemann’s body, a case could have been made to release Billik and to convict Emma of all of the murders. But after a cursory examination, Reinhardt reported no trace of it.

Reinhardt’s boss, Cook County Coroner Peter Hoffman, “clearly did not want poison to be discovered,” Shukis writes. “It would have cast an enormous cloud over Billik’s conviction and suggested that he, State’s Attorney Healy, Police Chief Shippy, and Judge Barnes had condemned an innocent man.”

Reinhardt “owed his job to Coroner Hoffman and the Republican cabal that ruled local government,” Shukis continues. “There was little incentive for Reinhardt to search very hard for poison when its discovery would only create problems for him and the rest of his own political organization.”


Author Steve Shukis

Shukis does an excellent job of organizing the book, weaving in short snippets of background and context throughout, which illuminate the points he is trying to make. He explains how arsenic poisoning affects the body and how, if given in small doses over time, arsenic poisoning can look like death from natural causes. He brings in the Republican National Convention of 1908, which was held in Chicago, to illustrate the power of the city, state, and national political machine. He discusses other murder trials, including that of serial killer Johann Hoch, who was hanged in Chicago in February 1906 on the same gallows later prepared for Billik, and happenings in Chicago and nationwide that affected and motivated those involved in the Billik case. And he points to other scandals, some years later, which embroiled officials involved in the Billik case, illustrating the dubious character of those people.

Although some readers familiar with Chicago history might already know the outcome of Billik’s case when they pick up Poisoned, for those new to the story, Shukis does a great job of not giving away the ending. It flows very much like a novel, building in page-turner intensity throughout. Nowhere in any of the cover matter is the fate of Billik or Emma Vrzal Niemann revealed, and the author successfully avoids excessive foreshadowing that would have wrecked the suspense.

The author also skillfully slips in his analysis of the story through the metered use, here and there, of a key word or two. When Cook County Circuit Judge Albert Barnes, in 1907, denies Billik a motion for a new trial, Shukis writes, for instance, that he “righteously declared that no man had ever received a fairer trial.”

Poisoned could have been improved with additional pictures. The 300-page book includes only about a dozen photographs, almost all of them posed individual shots of players in the Billik drama, mug shots of Billik, and images of family members appearing at inquests and at the trial. The author does a nice job of weaving into the text background on the Pilsen neighborhood and other tidbits about the era, such as the anarchist movement, Chicago baseball, and other infamous murder trials. Photos illustrating that background would have helped bring the story to life, and would have helped break up long stretches of gray text. It would have been nice to see, for example, historical newspaper images of the massive crowds that were drawn to public demonstrations seeking Billik’s pardon.

Despite these minor quibbles, Poisoned is a finely written, riveting indictment of Chicago’s early twentieth-century political machine, a fitting remembrance of the self-professed innocent man ensnared by it and of those who dared to stand up against it.

Four-Star Review

September 2014, TitleTown Publishing
$26.95, hardcover, 288 pages
ISBN: 978-099119381-3

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

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A Novel Approach to Illinois Politics

CBR_Logo2O, Democracy!
A novel

by Kathleen Rooney

Chicagoan Kathleen Rooney is no stranger to either politics or publishing, and she launches an excellent one-two punch with her novel O, Democracy, a compelling story about a young politico in the midst of a quarter-life crisis.

In this emotionally impactful novel, Rooney has written about what she knows, and that insight shines brilliantly in these pages. A former staffer for Senator Dick Durbin, Rooney has expertly captured the inner workings of government, the wizardry behind the curtain, the stuff most of us are afraid to look too closely at: the glacial pace of change, the two-faced personas of glad-handing politicians, the overly idealistic young hopefuls who staff offices while jockeying for position as close to their favorite politician as possible. Indeed, the novel is autobiographical, and in crafting this story, Rooney clearly has drawn on her experience in Durbin’s office.

o democracy rooney coverRooney, who also is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, knows how to tell a good story. Her publishing acumen is evident in O, Democracy, which is tightly written in colorful detail rich with emotion. Indeed, the story rings true and feels authentic in just about every aspect.

O, Democracy traces the professional coming-of-age of Colleen Dugan, a twenty-something junior staffer who (like Rooney once did) works in the office of “the Senior Senator from Illinois.” Dugan works in the Senator’s press office, one of many young staffers who long to do something important with their lives. But, far removed from any position of power, Dugan finds herself driving all over Illinois advancing poorly attended media events, answering phone calls from obstinate constituents, writing first-draft press releases, and handling other menial tasks, much the same as the even younger interns in her office do, day in and day out. Making policy, setting strategy, driving political agendas—all of that is way above Dugan’s pay grade.

Set in 2008, when the “Junior Senator from Illinois” is running for President (Rooney never actually names either Barack Obama or Dick Durbin at any point in the novel, though their identities are very thinly veiled and therefor clearly recognizable), O, Democracy captures the “Yes We Can!” optimism that Dugan and her colleagues feel toward liberal politics in general as well as the individual professional angst that Dugan herself feels. And it is this paradox that largely provides the tension in the story.

Struggling to make herself recognized as a valuable asset in the office of the Senior Senator from Illinois while honoring the office and his position, Dugan finds herself in possession of information that might or might not advance the Senator’s election bid. What she does with that information will seal her fate.

At times funny, at times heartbreaking, O, Democracy captures the angst and antics of Dugan and her colleagues as they navigate the muddy waters of Illinois politics. Much of this angst is palpably cringe-worthy. Indeed, watching Dugan make false steps and missteps, her earnestness and eagerness overwhelming any sense of political savvy she might possess, is painful, like watching someone trip badly on the sidewalk, tumbling face-forward, knees and hands bloodied and bruised.

It is in capturing the behind-the-curtain reality of politics and in drawing Dugan as an imperfect, multi-faceted person that Rooney shines. Several other characters also are compelling in their authenticity, and these people come together to create a rich cast that drives the story forward.

Rooney does well weaving subplots into, through, and around the main storyline, creating a world that is easy for readers to identify with. In addition, with its insider view, O, Democracy feels somewhat voyeuristic, as though readers have been given a back-stage pass to Illinois politics. In this, Rooney has crafted a novel that is nearly a real page-turner.

Nearly. Rooney has a distinct, unique writing style. It is a style that readers will likely either love or hate. Her writing is peppered with oblique references to people, places, and things, many of which go unnamed. Instead, readers are left to puzzle out what or whom Rooney is referencing. For example, in describing one of the main characters, she writes that “Sometimes he gets taken for the mononymic lead singer of a reggae-inflected British rock trio popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s.” Music fans of a certain age may well know who this is supposed to reference; others, however, are left in the dark.

Similarly, Rooney later describes a selection of food at a picnic as “potato chips from a Chicago vendor whose mascot is a snackbag wearing sunglasses and playing a saxophone.” Locals and/or junkfood aficionados might get this reference, but others might not.

Such descriptions at first feel funny and clever, but soon begin to feel snarky and long-winded. What is the point of such obfuscation? Instead of saying “They pull up in front of the hotel where they always stay when they attend the [State] Fair, rising like an air traffic control tower above downtown Springfield,” why not just write that they pulled up to the Springfield Hilton? Why make readers work so hard to cipher out the author’s meaning?

This intentionally enigmatic style seems at odds with several interludes peppered throughout the book. Whereas oblique descriptions force readers to figure out whatever it is that the author is talking about, a dozen or so italicized interludes apparently designed to guide the reader toward a better understanding of the story pop up here and there throughout the book. These strange passages feel as though they come from a second omniscient narrator (ostensibly the country’s Founding Fathers), one who needs to make sure that readers fully understand where the story is going and what is happening with Dugan, as though readers are somehow unable to figure this out on their own and need a little extra guidance in order to comprehend the full story.

These unnecessary interludes, coupled with the long-winded, enigmatic descriptions peppered throughout the book do, unfortunately, serve to slow down Rooney’s otherwise well-paced story. But, in the end, these are stylistic issues, and whether they work or not will depend on the reader’s preference.

At bottom, though, O, Democracy is a winning tale built on strong characters living authentic lives in a richly drawn world. It is in these aspects that Rooney’s story shines, and they alone make the novel a worthwhile read.

Three-Star Review

April 2014, Fifth Star Press
$24, hardcover, 397 pages
ISBN: 978-0-98465-109-2

 —Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Filed under fiction