When the University of California Press launched its California Fiction series in 1996, I was excited at the thought that some of the state’s long neglected novels would be back in print. I was especially happy to get a copy of Mary Austin’s The Ford, which was published the following spring. But what I thought was going to be the beginning of a lengthy list soon fizzled into nothing. Bright Web in the Darkness, which appeared in October 1997, turned out to be one of the last books published in the series.
Bright Web in the Darkness by Alexander Saxon. St. Martin’s Press (1958), 308 pp.
Full scale mobilization during World War II has opened many employment opportunities in defense industries. Joyce Allen has come to San Francisco to join the war effort. But as an African American woman, Joyce is doubly unlikely to move up to a good job at her Bay Area shipyard. The shipbuilders’ union only grudgingly admits women and has shunted black workers into a segregated “auxiliary.” In a welding class she meets Sally Kallela, a white waitress at the shipyard’s lunch counter. Sally’s father is a longtime labor activist who’s disgusted with the dictatorial tactics of the union leadership. He’s especially wary of lawyer Walter Stone, no longer a firm ally of the rank and file. Joyce and Sally become friends, and both become involved in union activities.
This well-meaning book raises some important issues but presents them without immediacy. Saxton’s main interest is the discriminatory practices of the shipbuilders’ union. He convincingly portrays a leadership determined to keep out African Americans by any means necessary, including lawsuits and physical attacks. Unfortunately, Saxon hasn’t generated the sense of urgency that might have arisen if he had written fifteen years earlier, when the racist policies of craft unions were in full force. Saxon also wants to depict the lives of the single women who worked in defense industries during the war. He’s found another interesting subject, but not one that his wooden characterizations allow him to explore in depth. Add lame dialog, pointless scenes and a limp ending, and the novel falls flat. Today the book will probably appeal only to readers interested in the topics that it addresses. More compelling novels about the home front are David Duncan’s The Serpent’s Egg (for wartime labor issues) and Chester Himes’ If He Hollers Let Him Go (for African Americans’ experiences in defense plants).