A debut historical novel charts the buildup to and aftermath of the worst mining disaster in American history.
Set against the rural backdrop of Appalachia, this story opens in the midst of unthinkable chaos: an underground explosion in a coal mine. With an official death toll of 362, the 1907 Monongah, West Virginia, cataclysm left countless wives widowed and children without fathers. Here the blast is witnessed from ground level. Orie Morris is working in the mine when the accident occurs, while Hershel, his friend since boyhood, is on the surface. Hershel waits desperately with Orie’s wife, Bessie, as rescuers carry the bodies out, including Orie’s. The story skips back to 1896 and the 8-year-old Hershel preparing for his first day of work as a trapper boy, operating a trap door that allows fresh air into the mine shaft. By age 12, he progresses to becoming a mule wrangler and cementing a firm friendship with Orie. The novel chronicles the coming-of-age of the young friends and how a community copes with loss when torn apart by tragedy. Bessie’s character is particularly well-developed, and her plight as a widow exposes prejudices against women of the era. When approaching the relief committee for money after Orie’s death, she finds the funds withheld on “moral” grounds. The fact that she has male boarders in her home proves tantamount to living in sin, and it is her duty to demonstrate otherwise. Similarly, her new boss, Mr. Humphrey, makes sexual advances toward her and then promises to ruin her reputation when she rebukes him. All the while, Hershel remains her rock, although Orie’s memory makes their relationship a complicated one. The writing here is graceful, emotionally intuitive, and thoroughly researched. Hoover expertly captures the essence of family life in the space of a sentence, here describing Orie and Bessie: “She, a tiny woman compared with her large and boisterous husband, loved to sing and loved to laugh, and he joined in the fun, never complaining if dinner was late because she was in the yard throwing a ball with the children.” Such warm tableaux are layered to create a living, breathing community whose pain is palpable and resilience, stirring. This results in fine and powerful work from a skilled historical interpreter that should appeal to American history buffs and romantics alike.
A clever, engaging, and heart-rending tale about a 1907 catastrophe in Appalachia.