This posthumous release by first-time novelist Norris largely succeeds in ensnaring fans of multigenerational melodramas.
Norris tells the saga, based on a true story, of the Mattisons, a family of hardscrabble, mountain farmers in West Virginia who, out of desperation, develop a small outcrop of coal on their property and become miners. The novel follows the secretive, nefarious way the mining venture got its startup capital—which causes the family’s daughter, Gem, to strike out on her own, becoming the madam of the lone bawdy house in the nearby town of Fairmont, while her brothers join her father in what grows into the world’s largest coal corporation. As the Mattisons flourish and become a mining dynasty, Norris does a marvelous job getting readers emotionally invested in the ever-expanding family, especially those members working to better the hazardous conditions for the miners, despite the deplorable indifference of the coal barons. Like such generational-saga veterans as James Michener and John Jakes, Norris admirably weaves fascinating historical details into her narrative, with her exhaustive research giving context to events within her novel. Following the Mattisons takes readers on a journey through the development of West Virginia’s coal mining industry, which comes to rule the state. Norris, a former West Virginia schoolteacher, started the novel at the age of 72, but failing health caused her to set it aside in the midst of revisions. Her son Randolph rediscovered the work, which had been tucked in a closet for 23 years, and shepherded it through to publication. Norris’ legacy is an engrossing tale of love and heartbreak, wealth and greed. The book would have benefited from more thorough editing, though, to remove repetitiveness and fix typos, but the story’s overall strength overcomes these shortcomings.
An accessible, entrancing story that draws readers into a family’s many triumphs and travails.