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Reviewed by:
  • Flames of Discontent: The 1916 Minnesota Iron Ore Strike by Gary Kaunonen
  • John Baeten
Gary Kaunonen, Flames of Discontent: The 1916 Minnesota Iron Ore Strike. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 272 pp. $24.95 (paper).

With a nod toward the "I.W.W. Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent" (also known as the "Little Red Songbook") of the Industrial Workers of the World, Gary Kaunonen's Flames of Discontent is a history of labor organizing, immigrant solidarity, and the formation of a working-class consciousness in the Iron Range during the early part of the twentieth century. Drawing on an impressive array of archival materials, including personal journals and letters, Kaunonen provides a history of Iron Rangers that emphasizes the immigrant working-class laborers who are oft en left voiceless in historical narratives and contemporary politics. The book focuses primarily on the organizing efforts of the IWW—a radical and militant labor organization that sought to unite workers across trades and ethnic backgrounds—in the Iron Range. Flames of Discontent should resonate with those interested in Minnesota history, industrial communities, labor relations, and economic justice.

A primary strength of the book is its vivid detail regarding immigrant life and living conditions in Iron Range mining camps, an asset gleaned in part from Kaunonen's knowledge of the Finnish language. This enviable skill afforded Kaunonen the ability to translate written records found in Finnish immigrant periodicals; these provide a unique window into the personal lives of those immigrant laborers who worked on the range. Furthermore, Kaunonen's emphasis on IWW activity significantly contributes to our understanding of labor history in the Lake Superior basin. Up to now, this region's labor history has been dominated by a focus on activities of organizations such as the Western Federation of Miners in Michigan's Copper Country. [End Page 199]

The book is organized into six chapters and is amply illustrated. It includes unique photographs of prominent labor organizers, such as Carlo Tresca and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, as well as political cartoons from labor organization periodicals. The narrative thread is at times difficult to follow; it reads somewhat like a series of journal articles that have been strung together to make a book. Additionally, a number of redundant phrases and quotes mar early chapters; this could have been addressed with finer editing. Furthermore, the book's title makes the 1916 strike appear to be the primary theme, but that event does not become the focus until the volume's latter half. Instead, Kaunonen provides two important contributions: thorough historical overviews of the IWW as an organization and of workingclass life on the Iron Range.

Throughout Flames of Discontent, Kaunonen does not shy away from his pro-labor roots. He writes as an activist historian, a style he describes as "working-class history." This reviewer found this approach to add color and emotion to the historical narrative, but some may find it polemic or divisive. For instance, Kaunonen tends to overlook the myriad cultures that existed within these mining camps. He groups much of the working class into a silo of pro-labor rabble rousers, while categorizing their opponents as either scabs or hired gun thugs. Although much of this sentiment is likely true, we know that history was more nuanced than that. That said, Kaunonen succeeds in telling the story of the development of a workingclass consciousness on the Iron Range, where people actively resisted bad pay and poor living conditions and fought for something better. But perhaps most impressively, Kaunonen shows how understanding our past and how we got here can help guide us through the similar challenges we face today.

John Baeten
Indiana University Bloomington, Indiana