Year: 1906 (audiobook, 1994)
Read Again? Yes
A masterfully-told story of a Lithuanian immigrant and his in-laws who are lured to Chicago's Packingtown.
Jurgis Rudkus starts out an optimistic man, full of the hope of the American Dream. He soon realizes that the entire system in Packingtown is arrayed against him and all the other workers. Wages are kept low, the hours are brutally long, and once you're in the system, there's no way out unless you know how to get in with the higher-ups. It's every man for himself.
Jurgis can't understand why every man he meets hates the job, hates the company, hates most of their co-workers, the bosses, the town. All he wants to do is have an honest job, and provide for his family. They pool their meager resources together and put a down-payment of $300 on a house. Their agent only tells them that they'll be paying $12 per month--and once the total of $1500 is paid off, it's theirs. They soon find that it's a trap. The agent didn't mention interest, taxes, or property improvement fees. He didn't tell them that being late on a full monthly payment plus interest will get them kicked out to the street.
We see the family ground down, near-starving in winter when the work is slack, scrabbling for pennies to put onto the next house payment, and working in horrible conditions where a small injury can put a worker on the street, his place taken up by someone fit and healthy. It's an awful, squalid world Jurgis and his family live in; Sinclair compares people to trees fighting for the tiniest amount of sunlight, only to fall like dead branches when winter comes.
It took nearly two weeks to get through this 15-hour Audiobook version; the story moved well, tightly-written by Sinclair and adequately narrated by Robert Morris. The only boring part is the last few chapters, when Jurgis stumbles into a Socialist Party meeting while just trying to keep warm. From there we're treated to Utopian preachings from various speakers. It was interesting to see it from the inside, but that's when the book really stopped being about Jurgis and started being about Sinclair's Socialism, with Jurgis as an observer.
Still, I can't take a point for that, since the story was utterly riveting. I look forward to actually reading it the next time, rather than listening to the somewhat odd narration. Robert Morris' reading reminded me of filmstrips and movies in elementary or middle school; he speaks clearly, but there's an odd rhythm in his speech.