Anna and Jim Holbrook and their four children—Mazie, Will, Jimmie, and baby Ben—live in a rural Wyoming coal-mining community, where Jim toils as an underground miner. They survive somehow in abject poverty, with most of Jim’s wages paid in scrip, usable only at the company store. Jim uses much of the rest of his wages on liquor to cope with the physical and mental strain of long hours underground. The townspeople live in dreaded anticipation of the whistle that announces another underground explosion and cave-in and the death of more miners. They all worry because the mine superintendent’s nephew, the new fire boss, never makes the trips to detect the possible presence of methane gas, which explodes when built up.
While Anna slaves with the housework and child care and futilely dreams of an education and better life for the children, Jim dreams the same while he labors for coal that should be red, not black, because it is gotten with the blood of miners. Mazie wonders about education and why blackness is so prevalent—the coal, the miners’ faces and hands, the night—and contrasts it with fire and the sun and the redness of Sheen McEvoy’s face, which had been blown off in an explosion, making him crazy.
The earth sucks Jim in to haul out coal to make the rich richer, but Jim and Anna plan to leave the mines for farming in the Dakotas. Before they can go, however, McEvoy grabs Mazie and carries her to a mine shaft. In his deranged thought he intends her as a virginal sacrifice to the mine, so that the mine will stop killing miners. The night watchman saves Mazie and knocks the crazed McEvoy down the shaft instead. Soon after, the Holbrooks depart for South Dakota, hoping for a better life there.
Life is indeed better in South Dakota, in some ways, with pure, soft air and a sense of freedom that makes Jim and Anna sing. Still, they are tenant farmers, and as they...
(The entire section is 782 words.)