It is 1924. Up in West Virginia’s coal country, in a town called War, young Emma awakens one morning to find her house buried in the debris of an overturned rail car.
Tekulve’s (Savage Pilgrims, 2009, etc.) debut novel examines love, family and place through an affecting multigenerational saga. Emma’s the daughter of a Sicilian immigrant and his American schoolteacher wife, a woman grown bitter. The lone girl in a houseful of brothers, all coal miners like her father, Emma helps her mother, a deeply religious Catholic convert, with the work demanded by the harsh, coal dust–covered world. Perhaps there is symbolism when Caleb Sypher uses a white handkerchief to clean Emma’s bloody feet after the derailment. There is certainly love and empathy and then a wedding a week later, after which Emma and Caleb retreat to his Virginia farm. Tekulve's descriptions of the hard, cold, dirty coal camp life, above and below ground, are masterful, and as the narrative moves to Virginia and Caleb is battered by the Great Depression, the author superbly draws struggling Caleb’s withdrawal into his perception of perfection: an ornate Italian garden set among the mountain’s hemlocks, blue laurels and rhododendrons. But Caleb is murdered by a tramp, and the narrative evolves to follow Dean, their son. Dean’s reluctantly taken to War while his shattered mother recovers, but Dean loves the mountain farm and treasures his mother. He returns to care for her and soon marries Sadie—think Ruby from Cold Mountain—a lonely girl who births him a daughter, Hannah. Tekulve’s great gift is to live in the hearts of her characters, whether it be Caleb, Emma, Dean, Sadie or the older Italian immigrant generation toiling in the mines.
Lyrical, haunting literary fiction.