Coal River, by Ellen Marie Wiseman***

coalriverCoal River is a work of historical fiction set in Coal River, Pennsylvania. A region by that name exists, and was the location of pitched battles between the United Mine Workers of America and local cops, strikebreakers, and company goons. Wiseman does a creditable job in her rendering of the setting in which it all unfolded. Thank you to Kensington Publications and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. It is now available for purchase.

Emma Malloy has been orphaned; a fire killed her mother and father. Her only surviving family owns the local coal mine, and she is taken to live with them. Uncle Otis is a tyrannical big boss, and spirited Emma tangles with him almost immediately when she sees the way coal miners, and in particular the breaker boys, small children that worked in the mines prior to the creation of child labor laws, are treated. She is forced to work in the company store, where she sees miners’ wives lining up to purchase overpriced goods. Once they are sufficiently behind in their accounts, they are turned away, their children hungry and undernourished, unless and until the account can be brought current. It’s a wrenching thing, and Emma refuses to be complicit.

The strength in this work is that it informs readers that may be unaware of the industry’s past as to the conditions that existed. Wiseman brings in the Mollie Maguires, a group of Irish-American anarchists, as well as famed photographer Lewis Hine, whose work is credited with speeding the creation of labor laws that protected small children from adult work in mines and other dangerous industries. Those that haven’t explored this aspect of the US’s past could do a lot worse than to learn it through this novel, which renders the setting palpable and vivid. It’s a time many people aren’t aware of, before the New Deal brought food stamps, health care initiatives, and other lifesaving aid to the unemployed and underemployed. Before that time, any who didn’t work, and whose family could not keep them, starved.
A particularly moving scene is the one in which the Black Maria comes to deliver a dead miner to the door of his widow, and everyone waits breathlessly to see at which home it will arrive.

Your reviewer had a much loved grandfather that died from Black Lung, the form of emphysema contracted by coal miners, particularly those who worked in the mines from an early age as he did. If anyone ought to see this as a five-star book just from sympathy with the material, I would be the one. This is why I requested the DRC. I wish I could rate it higher, but there are a couple of issues that I can’t ignore.

The weaknesses here are twofold. The first is in character development. Emma is not a dynamic character, and indeed, the bad guys are oh so very bad, and the brave young protagonist starts out spunky and but for a few moments toward the climax, remains that way. There is a brief scene in the climax in which Hazard Flint shows a fluctuation in character, but for the most part, our characters are on the very brink of becoming caricatures.

The second problem, which could be overlooked for rating purposes but which troubles me nevertheless, is that although small children no longer work the mines, those places are as dangerous as they ever were. The story carries with it the tacit message that all of these miscarriages of justice took place in a dark past that has no relationship to the present day. If Wiseman cares for the well being of miners and their families, she would have done well to add a post-script acknowledging that miners still get Black Lung; mines still cave in and trap scores of miners every year, and many don’t make it out alive; that union busting is alive and well in the good old US of A. By ending the story as she does, she infers incorrectly that all may rest easy. It just isn’t true.

In short, this is a great story for those new to the history of child labor in America and of those that fought to end it, but as a great literary work, or as a tangible plea for social justice in the present, it is left wanting.

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