A sadly flawed premise undermines Long’s debut novel, early chapters of which won the Katherine Paterson prize.
On his 13th birthday, Clemson joins his father in the depths of their small Missouri town’s lead mine. Clem hates mining, but his grandfather’s disability due to “miner’s consumption” and doctor bills from his sister’s epilepsy mean his family needs the money he’ll earn. Despite the manifest need, every day he hopes his Pap will release him, just as every week Grampy writes to the mining company in hopes of “compensation.” The writing is at times lovely, and it charts Clem’s emotional state with precision. His relationship with Esther and friendship with a bootlegger’s daughter are particularly touching. Unfortunately, that clarity does not extend to the actual mining, which, though Clem clearly hates it, is never made real for readers. He descends with a shovel; he “mucks” for ore; he ascends. More seriously, Long’s story is anachronistic in both directions: The characters have 21st-century sensibilities, even as Clem seems to live by 19th-century rules. Unlike in the 1800s, in 1924, when the story begins, Missouri state law prohibited mines from employing anyone under age 16. And as there is evidently no union nor any clear precedent, Grampy’s expectation of compensation for his lung disease seems highly unlikely.
The at times lyrical writing cannot compensate for the flawed history. (Historical fiction. 8-12)