A clever, engaging, and heart-rending tale about a 1907 catastrophe in Appalachia.

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Beyond Monongah

AN APPALACHIAN STORY

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. 

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4808-3619-8

Page Count: 254

Publisher: Archway Publishing

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2016

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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