Jeff Biggers on coal in Southern Illinois

Jeff Biggers' book tells a powerful story about coal in Southern Illinois.

I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but sometimes I get to the end of a book and say, “Damn, I wish I had written that!”

Jeff Biggers’ Reckoning at Eagle Creek is one such book.

Thanks to intern, former organizer and budding journalist Samantha Winslow for lending me the copy.

Biggers’ focus is the now devastated coal fields of Southern Illinois, part of the state that bills itself as the “Saudi Arabia of coal.” His story incorporates personal, familial, political, literary and historical elements with a high degree of fluency.

At base, the book is a story of return and discovery.

Biggers’ family first settled in Eagle Creek more than two centuries ago, and he visits it to uncover a formerly glorious landscape and its workers wrecked by operators’ avarice.  This is disheartening, to say the least.  Yet, at the same time, Reckoning at Eagle Creek is also a strike against what he calls “historicide,” that is, the erasure of people from history.  In so doing, he taps into a resilient and defiant spirit.

It’s a compelling journey that weaves through the history of slavery and the area’s native peoples, that includes chapters about strip mining abuses and the hope betrayed by former State Senator and now-President Barack Obama.  Biggers also takes us through the history of some of union organizing’s greats like John Lewis and Mother Jones.

Biggers’ moral outrage, deep love of the land and its people animate the work, which is filled with memorable vignettes, characters and information.

We’ve still got close to a third of the year to go, and I am confident that Biggers’ book will be on my list of Top 10 reads for 2010.

I hope you check it out, too.

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