Monday, July 30, 2012

Southern coal: take a trip back in time

When I was about 20, I had my first introduction to coal mining in the South. I took a camping trip with my parents along the Shenandoah Valley, to Luray Caverns and Big Meadows Campground. On the way back to North Carolina, we stopped to bike a trail that lead to the "ghost town" of Thurmond, WV, a former coal mining town. The town, of course, was deserted, apart from one tiny souvenir shop where I bought a train made out of coal for my boyfriend. There was rumor of a murder that had taken place in the old hotel -- something about money lost over gambling -- and as we climbed the hill to where the few remaining residents lived, the atmostphere grew eerier, and I imagined the ghosts of the town (and the 7 or so people still living there) watching us. We got out of there pretty quickly!

Needless to say, my impressions of coal mining are not pleasant -- a necessary, dirty, and dangerous job for people who have few options. While lots of nonfiction books explore coal mining, I had a hard time finding many Southern fiction books about it. Susan Tekulve of Spartanburg, SC, caught my attention -- she recently won the 2012 S.C. First Novel Competition (sponsored by the S.C. Arts Commission and Hub ity Press of Spartanburg) for her novel The Nipper. Her book follows the lives of a coal mining Italian immigrant family as they struggle to survive in a tiny Virginia town.

Gin Phillips, author of The Well and the Mine, tells a fictional tale of a real-life Alabama coal-mining town, Carbon Hill, in 1931. The novel begins with a shocking act of violence, as a baby is thrown into a family well. Publisher's Weekly describes the story: "A tight-knit miner's family struggles against poverty and racism in Phillips's evocative first novel, set in Depression-era Alabama."

Hazard, a novel by Gardiner Harris describes a mine disaster in Hazard, KY, and the repercussions that follow. A reviewer in The Washington Post writes that Harris used to work in Hazard, Ky., as the Eastern Kentucky bureau chief for the Louisville Courier-Journal. "His prize-winning reporting there was credited with helping pass laws that strengthened the state's mine-safety rules." The reviewer adds, "Harris understands the fatalism of miners who know their jobs can kill them."

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