The Coal Tattoo expands upon the Appalachian family saga in author Silas House’s two previous novels, Clay’s Quilt (2001) and A Parchment of Leaves (2002). This narrative follows the lives of sisters Easter and Anneth Sizemore of Clay County, Kentucky, during the 1960’s. Although temperamentally very different, the sisters’ shared love of the land they grew up on provides an unbreakable bond.
The girls, orphaned at an early age by their father’s death in a coal mining accident and the subsequent suicide of their mother, were raised by their grandmothers, from whom they absorbed a great appreciation of the natural world. After the deaths of these women, twenty-year-old Easter gives up a college scholarship to stay home and raise fifteen-year-old Anneth. The spiritual Easter, a devout Pentecostal who eschews drinking, smoking, and dancing, has her hands full with earthy Anneth, a wild child suffering from severe mood swings, who regularly sneaks out to pursue the pastimes condemned by her sister.
Easter marries a good man, suffers a miscarriage and drifts from the church for a time. Anneth enters into three bad marriages, finally giving birth to a son fathered by a soldier traveling through town on his way to Vietnam. Throughout their hardships, Easter and Anneth gain strength from their deep roots in the Kentucky soil. In the end the two women risk injury and arrest to protect their home from the coal company which has claimed their property and threatened to destroy it by strip mining.
Beautifully written, The Coal Tattoo is a paean to the Kentucky hill country as well as an insightful character study.