As states have moved this year to restrain labor unions, it might seem predictable that Colorado College would assign its incoming freshmen to read Ludlow, a tragedy about a 1914 battle between striking immigrant coal miners and union-busting National Guardsmen.
But the author, David Mason, says that thinking of Ludlow solely in terms of left versus right or labor versus management would be missing the novel's larger point.
"Organized labor has been a necessary component of American economic and political life," he says, invoking the pro-labor T-shirt slogan "Unions: the people who brought you the weekend." But the story is also a reminder that unions could be "corrupt and violent and sometimes self-destructive."
He calls Ludlow "an existential book about the problem of believing that you have a right to exist, and that you have a right to be here in the United States."
Many college-age Americans struggle with such dilemmas, says Mr. Mason, a professor of English at Colorado College, which makes it an apt novel for a summer-reading program. "Those young people who don't struggle with it perhaps need to have a discussion about why other people struggle with it," he says, "so that we can try to eliminate a little bit of our smugness in America about who we are, and what we do, and our place in the world."
In driving verse, the novel tells the story of Greek, Italian, Mexican, Scottish, and Welsh immigrants who organize a strike over the dangerous working conditions in a coal mine in Ludlow, Colo. The miners are influenced by a national labor union eager to gain a foothold in southern Colorado, and the mining company responds with thuggish tactics. When gunfire breaks out, Colorado's governor summons the National Guard to keep the peace. But the state is unable to pay the troops, so they side with the deep-pocketed mining company, and the lengthy standoff culminates in the Ludlow massacre of April 20, 1914.
Although many of the details of Ludlow are fiction, the massacre of striking miners and their families was real. The episode has been memorialized in a granite monument and in a song by Woody Guthrie—though "not one of his best," remarks Mr. Mason, Colorado's poet laureate.
"Thirteen women and children suffocated under a tent that was set ablaze, and a number of other people were shot, some by accident and some deliberately," he says. "About 25 people died that day, and about 100 others died in shootouts over a period of months."
In the aftermath of the massacre, the miners rampaged through Southern Colorado for 10 days before President Woodrow Wilson sent federal troops to stop them.
Colorado College officials selected Mr. Mason's story as this summer's book because it can be read from multiple academic perspectives—literary, political, and economic among them—and because it offers a lens to examine contemporary issues like immigration policy and climate change.
As for the novel's verse format, Mr. Mason dismisses any concern that freshmen might be daunted by it. Some people read Ludlow as poetry, paying particular attention to every word, line, and stanza, he says. Others treat it as a page-turner, reading for story, character, and pace.
"In that sense," he says, "it's not unrelated to the phenomenon of the graphic novel. It's another way of moving a story, and it happens to be the most ancient way."
A Sampling of Freshman Readings
Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession, by Francesco Duina
Baylor U. Honors Program
The Whole Five Feet, by Christopher R. Beha
The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch
California State U. at Northridge
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
Acts of Faith, by Eboo Patel
College of Wooster
Brother, I'm Dying, by Edwidge Danticat
Rooftops of Tehran, by Mahbod Seraji
Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle
What Is the What, by Dave Eggers
Scratch Beginnings, by Adam Shepard
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, by Anna Deavere Smith
Saint Michael's College
Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer
This I Believe, edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman
St. John's College (Md. and N.M.)
Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers
U. of Maryland-Baltimore County
Outcasts United, by Warren St. John
U. of Tennessee at Knoxville
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
U. of Virginia School of Engineering
Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach
Washington U. in St. Louis
The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway