Paging Appalachia

My name is Tim Huguenin. I currently volunteer for West Virginia Writers, Inc. as a Regional Representative, serving Pocahontas, Pendleton, Randolph and Webster counties. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to review various literary works about West Virginia and/or by West Virginian authors. Coal is not the only treasure hidden in our beautiful home state. These “hills and hollers” have inspired a number of truly amazing books, and it is a sad fact that many remain unknown to mainstream popular culture—and perhaps even unfamiliar to many of us who have lived in West Virginia for most of our lives and recognize its worth.

Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina is one such hidden gem. Though it was first published in 1987, many people I talk with still have not heard of it. It is historical fiction set during the early 20th century mine labor disputes, when many miners fought to unionize at great risk to their lives and the wellbeing of their families. Giardina speaks through the voices of four characters to tell of these miners’ struggles: C. J. Marcum, Carrie Bishop, Rondal Lloyd and Rosa Angelelli.

The coal companies steal the Marcum’s land early on, embittering C. J. against them before they even begin operations. C. J. is a good friend to Rondal Lloyd’s father and is instrumental in his upbringing, specifically in the way he encourages Rondal’s ideas about unionization. Rondal grows up to become a union organizer, fighting for miners’ rights in southern West Virginia. Carrie grows up on a farm in Kentucky, but ends up as a nurse in a West Virginia coal camp, where she meets Rondal and falls in love.

Carrie’s brother, Miles Bishop, is a secondary character that I find to be extremely important. The overall narrative is sympathetic to the striking miners and condemning of the coal operators. However, though Miles works for the coal companies, he isn’t a villain—to a degree, he offers a truly sympathetic ear to Carrie’s perspective on the miners’ living and working conditions. Through Miles, Giardina illustrates that there are often good people on both sides of nasty conflicts, even if history proves later that some of those good people, like Miles, were woefully misguided, if not willfully ignorant.

With so many characters and locations, it can be hard to keep track of the plot on the first read, especially since the dialect may be hard for some readers to get used to. Rosa’s chapters are the most difficult to interpret, as she is an Italian immigrant whose mental stability declines rapidly over the course of events.

Despite the challenges, Giardina effectively transports readers to the early 20th century southern Appalachian coalfields and brings the miners’ plight to life.

While the characters and some places are fictitious, the story follows true historical events that are nearly as unbelievable as any fiction. The crimes committed in those days by the coal operators and their so-called “detectives” are appalling, including an instance where they sent an armored train carrying a machine gun to shoot up a tent camp full of striking miners’ families. The book culminates at the Battle of Blair Mountain, a nearly forgotten chapter of our nation’s history, when more than 10,000 miners marched 50 miles toward Logan and fought opposing forces that included local law enforcement, strikebreakers, and the United States military.

When I heard that this book was set during the West Virginia Mine Wars, I expected a greater focus on the fighting. However, the bulk of the narrative is about the tensions that lead to Blair Mountain, with a focus on Carrie and Rondal’s relationship and their work to support the miners in their awful circumstances. Giardina reminds us of the people forgotten in the shadow cast by war’s spectacle.

The prose is excellent: efficient, tight and poetic. The older southern Appalachian dialect might be difficult for some, but it rings like sweet music to my ear. Denise Giardina could be West Virginia’s Flannery O’Connor. As a general rule, I find it a high sacrilege to mark up a novel—but I couldn’t keep myself from highlighting C. J. Marcum’s words: “These mountains has got a powerful pull. They let a man wander so far and then they yank him back like a fish on a line. I knew Rondal would sleep uneasy while he was away, and the hills would bring him home.”

I first read Storming Heaven while I was living in Wyoming, and those words resonated deep in my homesick heart. Turns out they were as true for me as they were for Rondal Lloyd.

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