A family history that digs deep into an isolated Appalachian mining community.
Debut author Frazer grew up in the small mining community of Minden, West Virginia, when coal was still king in Appalachia. At the time of the 1950 census, 28 percent of the male population of Fayette County was employed in the mines, including Frazer’s father. This book offers a thoroughly researched, if somewhat plodding, family history that fondly recalls the camaraderie—and grime—of life in an isolated coal camp. Waste from the mines, she writes, was “piled high” on the hillside behind her house, “letting off a burning, stinky smoke constantly hovering over Minden....I remember thinking that this must be what I hear others talk about as Hell.” The first half of the book painstakingly describes the emigration of her ancestors from central Europe, their early struggles as farmers in Virginia, and the impact of the Civil War. There are some interesting revelations here; for example, Frazer’s sixth removed grandfather, a former indentured servant, owned slaves, and her grandfather joined the Ku Klux Klan, apparently “as a constructive way to ensure the safety of his family.” But the book’s dearth of local color and context makes for heavy reading. Things pick up, however, once the author, one of seven children, takes center stage; her firsthand presence lends some immediacy to the mining-town memories. The family’s home, she says, was company property and “Company houses in Minden eventually changed colors from white to gray as the coal dust, soot, and burning slate settled on the homes.” The outdoor toilet served all nine family members and many days they took “a bucket or pail of water, soap and wash cloth to take a ‘spit bath.’ ” On one occasion, Frazer’s brothers dug a hole to where they believed a neighbor was storing moonshine: “they find no moonshine. They do discover a usable toilet.” The Minden mines closed in 1955 and none of Frazer’s family members now work in the industry. But in this memoir, she tells of how the mining life “will always be part of us. Those ties are too strong to break.”
Firsthand recollections of communal spirit enliven a sometimes-slow text.