A disappointingly unaffecting saga from West Virginia novelist Giardina (Good King Harry, 1984, Storming Heaven, 1987) about the deathwatch of a once-vibrant Appalachian mining community. Beginning when coal was still king with the 1930's childhood of central characters Rachel and cousin Dillon, Giardina introduces the men and women who live along Blackberry Creek. They are a small and close community of representative types: Arthur Lee, the company man who finally comes through decades later when tragedy strikes because ``they are my people too''; Doyle Ray, who goes to Vietnam and returns a fundamentalist preacher; Toejam, of small intellect but big heart, who marries crippled Brenda; and Hassel, a bar-owner and the most memorable and original character here, who is set on building a bridge across the creek to make life a little easier for everybody. These people's lives are shaped and dominated by the coal seams that permeate their beloved mountains and give them employment. Though Dillon, a labor activist and son of a martyred union organizer, and Rachel love each other, Rachel marries Italian bookkeeper Tony. But passion will out: the other two get together, and Jackie is conceived, though she won't know that Dillon is her real dad for most of the book. When Jackie grows up, she meets VISTA worker Tom—the 1960's War on Poverty is on— but Tom is going to be a priest, so Jackie goes to work in Washington. She's unable to forget the mountains or Tom, however, so she returns to Blackberry Creek. Here, miners are being dismissed, benefits cut, even the great strike of the 1980's is ignored by the usual sympathizers; and when the dam, built of slag at the valley head, finally bursts, the destruction of the community is complete. Lives of not-so-quiet desperation luminously described, but despite a great subject and setting, the major characters who should hold it all together never do.
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