The Scapegoat

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Despite praise from Granville Hicks, Malcolm Cowley, George Garrett, and other major critics, Mary Lee Settle is a novelist whose career has been marked by neglect and confusion. Many newspaper and television critics who were angered by the selection of Blood Tie as the winner of the 1978 National Book Award for Fiction, confessed they had not read the novel nor did they bother to find out what Settle had written previously. Since 1954, Settle has published ten novels.

Settle’s latest novel, The Scapegoat, is the fourth in “The Beulah Quintet.” Perhaps the confusion that surrounds these five novels is due in part to the conflict between Settle’s changing conception of the whole and the order in which each was published. When the first three books, O Beulah Land (1956), Know Nothing (1960) and Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday (1964) were ready, Settle wanted them published as a trilogy, but Viking, then her publisher, refused. They were later published as a trilogy in paperback by Ballantine Books. Settle also claims that her editor cut Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday so drastically as to disturb its relation to the other novels, and she is now rewriting it to make it connect with them. That it was originally entitled The Killing Ground further complicates the pure picture she wishes to see emerge from the five books.

If “The Beulah Quintet” is to be read in the related order Settle now intends, the physical order of publication must be discounted. The novels should be read chronologically as follows: Prisons (1973), set in England in 1634; O Beulah Land, the region that is now West Virginia, from 1755-1774; Know Nothing, West Virginia between 1847 and 1861, leading to the Civil War; The Scapegoat, West Virginia in 1912; and Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, West Virginia in 1960. Although any one of the books may be read without any of the other four, the delineation of families and characters and the changing land is enhanced by the proper order.

Settle was born in and spent a major portion of her life in and around Charleston, West Virginia. Although the four books growing out of this geographical area are not autobiographical, she combines personal elements in her life with intensely researched material and imagination to allow the reader to perceive events of history from within a personal structure. The ancestral tree, its branches extending from Johnny Church in Prisons to Hannah McKarkle in Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, provides the characters for each of the novels. Johnny Lacey, Johnny Church’s descendant in O Beulah Land, establishes an estate in the valley west of the Endless Mountains before the area became West Virginia; in Know Nothing, Peregrene Catlett is descended from Johnny Church and Johnny Lacey; The Scapegoat includes several offspring from the Beulah dynasty—Jake Catlett, Beverley Lacey, Mooney McKarkle; and Hannah McKarkle in Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday, named after the first Hannah in O Beulah Land, becomes the chronicler of the collective history of Beulah land.

The events around which Settle shapes her narratives are sometimes ritual (marriages, feasts, funerals) sometimes broader historical crises (the English Revolution, the Civil War). In The Scapegoat, the characters gravitate around and converge in major strikes in the coal mining area of West Virginia that eventually led to the Matewan Massacre in Mingo County in 1920.

The axis of The Scapegoat is a seventeen hour period from 3:00 P.M. on Friday, June 7 until 8:00 A.M. on Saturday, June 8, 1912. Although Settle uses fictional names for the creeks and towns, the location is very probably the sharp, jagged mountains between Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in Logan County, West Virginia. This sparsely settled mountain region expanded because of the increased demand for coal. Many of the natives thought it was bad luck to work underground and so the coal mine operators turned to two sources for their manpower supply: the cotton-growing states of the South and the over-crowded slums of central and southern Europe. People from those two areas were tempted by agents of the mine operators with offers of free transportation, steady work, good wages, and company houses. Once these men, with their families in many cases, were transported to the foreign soil, they had no choice but to work under intolerable conditions and often for unscrupulous mine owners.

Union organizers in 1912, moved into the territory and in April, seventy-five hundred miners went on strike. Others chose to continue working. They had families to support. As the threat of violence grew greater, the county sheriffs were unable to police all the mining camps. To cope with this situation, each coal company deputized one of its employees to serve as the keeper of the peace in the camp. Mine guards came in from outside, mostly supplied by the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency and were called “Baldwin Thugs.” The mine guards, in their black coats and hats, and the company sheriff became the chief law enforcement agency in the coal counties. The mine guards loaded the striking miners’ household goods into freight cars, hauled them across the lines of the company property, and dumped them along the railroad tracks. Homeless and hungry, the strikers and their families were forced to...

(The entire section is 2245 words.)