SHELL GAMES by Jeffrey S. Copeland

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Shell Games is non-fiction, classified as true crime/biography/history, but it reads like a novel with well-developed characters, action, drama, and suspense.

The book tells the story of Pearl McGill who was involved in the initial establishment of a union and protection of workers’ rights in the button industry in Muscatine, Iowa, around 1910. I bought the book because my next novel will take place around the same time period and will involve the clamming part of the button industry. The working of the clammers and button makers was well-researched and weaved well throughout the story. I felt like I got to learn about every aspect of the life of a button, from the mussels being plucked out of the Mississippi River to the buttons being sewn on cards and packed for shipping. The book also gave me a good sense of what Muscatine looked, felt, and smelled like in that time period.

I noticed some typos and confusing moments, but they didn’t detract terribly from my reading. For example, when Pearl was kidnapped, I was surprised that she wasn’t more afraid for her roommate when she gave her kidnappers her address. At one point, the book mentions how Pearl stopped by to get a library book she’d put on hold; I found it odd that she would’ve been spending much time reading leisurely with so much turmoil in her life (it didn’t mention that the book was related to strikes or workers’ rights). I was also surprised that Pearl wasn’t concerned about her boss finding out about her involvement with the union when she agreed to such a high-profile role; she didn’t seem to consider it until she saw her boss at a meeting. Finally, I was confused about the timeline. The story starts with Pearl’s arrival in Muscatine on July 9, 1910, and the story seems to take place all during the summer months, with no mention of winter, but the epilogue states that the agreement Pearl helped to work out occurred in May, 1911.

Shell Games is overall a good book, appropriate for those who enjoy historical novels or biographies. It would also appeal to those who like to read about by-gone industries or are interested in union formation history. It did take me a little longer than normal to read it so, on a can’t-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn’t even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I give it a six and a half.

Source: Copeland, J. 2012. Shell Games: The Life and Times of Pearl McGill, Industrial Spy and Pioneer Labor Activist. Paragon House: St. Paul, Minnesota.