West Virginia Mining Tragedy, Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven

Denise Giardina's novel gives the backstory on the recent West Virginia mining accident.

Family members’ hopes for the survival of miners trapped in the Upper Big Branch South Mine are growing dimmer by the hour.

The Associated Press recently reported that gas levels are still too high to mount a rescue effort, and earlier attempts to make contact with living miners met with no answer.

This is only the latest in a series of mining disasters that have struck the state and Appalachian region during the past 150 years.

In Matewan, acclaimed filmmaker John Sayles depicted the interrelated battle for wages and working conditions in 1920s West Virginia.

Novelist and former gubernatorial candidate Denise Giardina knows the struggle because she has lived it since her earliest days in the coal camp in which she was born. 

Her pair of novels covers the bloody, inspiring and often wrenching history of West Virginians from the 1890s through to the Reagan years and beyond.

Of the two, Storming Heaven, the first, is my favorite.

I read the book in 1989, when I was living in Southwest Virginia and working with at-risk youth through a program funded by the Job Training Partnership Act co-sponsored by the late Ted Kennedy and Dan Quayle.

The novel covers the four decades from 1880 to about 1920, and ends with a violent battle for unionization that was based on the 1921 Battle for Blair Mountain-a battle that took place less than 100 miles from the camp of Giardina’s youth.

The novel is told from the perspective of four major characters: activist Mayor C.J. Marcum; fierce, loveless union man Rondal Lloyd; gutsy nurse Carrie Bishop, who loves Rondal; and lonely Sicilian immigrant Rose Angelelli, from whom the mines will take those she loves.

The writing from Angelelli’s perspective was particularly engaging for me, as it bore the imprint of Faulkner, Joyce and other practitioners of interior monologue.

All the characters bring passion, outrage and vulnerability to their attempts to get by and make the world more  just than when they entered it.

The recent accident-some bristle at the term tragedy because it removes responsibility from the owners-shows that justice has not yet been fully realized, and, in fact, much work remains to be done.

In the meantime, our thoughts and prayers go out to the miners and their families.

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