The West Virginia coal mine war of 1920 – 1921, was a large-scale insurrection that involved thousands of union and non-union miners, state and private goons, and federal troops. Before it ended, three West Virginia counties were in open rebellion, parts of the state were under military rule, and bombers of the U.S. Air Corps had been sent against the striking miners.
To this day the legend of the bloody Matewan Massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain are recounted in backwoods stories, films, and books.
It is against this backdrop that Andrea Fekete, who is the granddaughter of Mexican and Hungarian immigrant coal miners, and was raised in a coal camp on Buffalo Creek, as set her deeply moving, and beautifully-written first novel, Waters Run Wild.
The novel focuses on one family barely living in a coal camp, in debt to the company store, and their immigrant neighbors, who are black, white, Hungarian, and Mexican, and who's lives are deeply affected by the overreaching power of the coal company, the brutal, fierce forces arranged against the pro-union miners, and the sudden catastrophe of a flooding mine, that ripples through them all there in the West Virginia hills that loom about their coal camp shacks, stretching out across the land.
Waters Run Wild is a beautifully rich debut. At times poetic, at times gripping in its realism, at times heartbreaking in its anguish, at time humorous and tender. Told mainly in the authentic Appalachian voices of 18-year-old Jennie, and her brothers, Ezra, and Isaac, and sisters, Katie, and Anna May, known as “Little Bird.” The novel touches on love, segregation, and family. The daily burden of the women, from dawn until late at night. Cooking, planting, plucking chickens, sewing; hands rubbed red and raw, from daily soakings in washtubs, streams, dirt gardens, and hanging damp clothes on the line in threadbare dresses, while winter wind and sleet pelts them. The mother, Mary, trying to cover her head from the blows raining down on her from a drunken husband, Clem, angry at his lot in life, left with no way to express his anger except through violence laid upon his woman and son.
There is so much to love in this novel and listen to. At times, it is in the voices and song of the land itself and the creek:
“I sing all year. I sing funeral songs. I sing for the coal miners carried out on tabletops and in blankets. I sing for the wailing women who stood by waiting. I sing for the bastard babies who die in birth and their teenage mother's who died with them. Those tragedies come to me because I am the only one strong enough, me the creek, to hold them in.”
“I hold all their secrets. I sing all their songs.”