This hauntingly evocative Depression-era novel centers around a coal battle near Harlan, Kentucky. Our protagonist is Bill Music (originally Musik, before the Ellis Island people decided to yank the German element from the family name). Music has gone from his family’s bare-dirt farm in Virginia to seek his fortune in Chicago. He worked his way through a nine month electrician’s certification program, did hard labor to support himself, and just when he was ready to go on home, he was robbed. His attackers even found the $20 hidden in his shoe, since they took his shoes also. Barefoot, broke and hungry, he joins throngs of other down-and-out Americans by jumping a freight train toward home. The third day on an empty stomach, he sees a farm with piglets in the back yard and crazed from hunger, leaps from the train with no thought how he’ll get back on one. A twenty mile, post-piglet walk leads him to Hardcastle, a mining town filled with impoverished, bitter miners on the brink of unionization.
Regis Patoff may be my favorite character in Yount’s story. The name itself is great; I will leave the reader to uncover its origin, one of the few humorous moments in the story. Patoff offers Music the heart-stopping salary of three bucks a day, more than he used to make in a whole week, to be a mine guard. He deceives Music by telling him that the mine is too small to attract union drama anyway, and so he will be paid this handsome amount to routinely trudge around the property at night three times a week.
When something looks too good to be true, it generally is.
Music moves in with Regis and his mother, the wonderfully drawn Ella Bone, who takes to him as a second son. When all hell breaks loose, Music is in too deep to walk away. Winter is coming; he has been away so long that he can no longer imagine the faces of his parents or siblings, but Regis, Ella, and his beloved Merlee are right there in front of him. He stays.
The reader should expect to deal with a certain amount of Appalachian/country dialect. If English is your second language, you will want an e-reader for definitions, or a native English speaker to guide you through some of the vernacular.
For me, however, it created an immediate bond. Two generations ago, my father’s people were miners; they were comfortably ensconced in more lucrative, less dangerous work by the time I was born. Until I read Yount’s novel, I was unaware of how many cultural artifacts had leeched into my own childhood from the mines of the Depression era. Immediately a little girl calls her grandfather “Pappaw”, and I found myself missing my own Pappaw, who died in 1977. One of the main characters calls out the greeting, not hello but “Hydee!” and I can hear my father’s voice, gone 35 years, as clear as day. When you read the word “victuals”, hear it as “vittles”, and it means food, usually a good meal. And so it went.Somewhere along the way I realized I had flagged so many terms I hadn’t heard for ages that those reading my review would not want to march through all of them with me, so I will leave off here and continue with the story.
For me, this was a page-turner. The last star fell off the review during the last ten percent of the story, when some historical inaccuracies too great to dismiss as mere story-telling devices came up. The greatest was the depiction of the United Mine Workers as a union made up entirely of communists. And given that contemporary working class history is my field of expertise, it really grated. For those who want the truth, here it is:
During the early years of American union struggle, most industrial unions banned anyone who was not Caucasian; who was not an American citizen; or who was a communist from their ranks. The UMW refused to let its ranks be decimated by these distinctions, believing in solidarity. So yes, people who were communists and said so openly were allowed to join, and if the ranks voted them into leadership, they were allowed to take their posts. The union did not yield to red-baiting. There were white folks in the union who didn’t think people of color should be allowed in, but the UMW pointed out that solidarity was the best way to keep workers all on the side that would fight for their interests.
Yount correctly depicts the UMW as inclusive of every ethnicity, race, and nationality, but it incorrectly paints the UMW as a communist union, to the extent that in order to stay in the union, members were ultimately expected to renounce their Christian beliefs and take up little red flags. It is preposterous. When it came into the story, I expected some other thing to happen in order to undo the incorrectness of it, but he left it lay there, the dead elephant in the room. It really got in the way of the story. It was just stupid, and I did a complete 180 from being really entertained and enjoying the story and its characters, trying to determine what would happen in the future to the main surviving players, to being aggravated at the lie on which the resolution of the tale hinges. I also didn’t like the implication that mine workers were dumb enough to be led around by the nose without having known who was leading them. Many of them (including my grandfather) had a low or nonexistent literacy level, but that didn’t make them stupid, just poor.
For other readers, the whole story may be entirely enjoyable. The characterizations are endearing, the setting palpable. When Yount brought winter, my feet got cold. His writing is really strong.
But watch the history. Changing major historical events and realities through fiction is a dangerous thing, because when emotion runs high, people bond to what’s in the text, and if they have no reason to believe otherwise, they assume they are getting the truth, or the mostly-truth. And this author hasn’t merely tampered with some minor realities for the sake of a good story; he has stood the historical record on its head.