In 1921, ten thousand coal miners took up arms against the continued abuses of the mine owners and their stooges. Supported by the United States Army, the companies crushed the uprising, and the United Mine Workers suffered a serious setback. Around this tragic episode, Giardina has woven a fast-paced, compassionate portrait of the miners’ lives, presenting the unfolding events through the eyes of four characters: Cincinnatus Jefferson Marcum, a socialist; Rondal Lloyd, a union organizer; Carrie Bishop, a strong-willed nurse; and Rosa Angelelli, an Italian immigrant.
The novel’s sympathies are clearly with the oppressed workers, whose land is seized by distant plutocrats who regard new outhouses for miners as frills but treat their own private railway trains as necessities. Giardina lets the reader see the coal-dust-covered shacks, smell the sulfurous fumes, and feel the anguish of parents and spouses as children die of malnutrition and husbands are killed in explosions and cave-ins.
She is equally effective in portraying the dreams of those who pledged their lives, honor, and small fortune to create a better world for their families. The men and women driven by desperation to kill were also compelled by hope and faith.
Although the book essentially ends with the miners’ defeat in 1921, a brief afterward warns against complacently viewing the events narrated here as merely part of a shameful but buried past. The son of Carrie and Rondal writes from Winco, West Virginia, “We have been locked out of the mines for over a year. . . . Last month, scab miners were brought in to take our place. . . . The companies still own the land.” These words are dated 1987.