Those who had lived through the explosions and fires soon died from the gas, some covering their heads as best they could as if to ward off the inevitable. The waiting families clustered on the hillside, even as the December snow began to fall, knew nothing of the agony of their fathers or brothers underground perhaps trying to scribble a note on paper or carve a message onto the tunnel wall, hoping and praying for rescue, but realizing that such a miracle could never happen.
This is a scene from Beyond Monongah, the 1907 site of the worst coal mine disaster in American history. How do families go on from such tragedies? To answer that question, I’ve written a work of literary fiction that covers the time period between 1896 and 1921 and weaves in the major historical events of that period such as World War I and the consequent coal boom followed by post-war recession and strike, the Spanish Flu Pandemic, the campaigns of Mother Jones, and the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan. My intended audience includes those interested in history, coal mining, labor unrest, temperance campaigns, and especially the life of working class families.
My protagonist, Hershel Martin, began work at the age of eight in a coal mine in northern West Virginia. Hershel, an impulsive and angry child, taunted because his father had worked through a strike, has thrown an inkwell at his teacher and fled out the schoolhouse window, so there’s nothing for him but work. At the age of twelve, he loses both his mother and his twin sister. By the time of the tragedy at Monongah, Hershel is now age nineteen and has worked underground for eleven years. He escapes the explosion, but enters the smoldering mine as part of the rescue effort.
Hershel’s life is colored by the disaster and by his yearning for a stable home life. His young wife, Lucy, has died of tuberculosis and his best friend, Orie, has been killed at Monongah. He would have been in the mine working alongside Orie, but had spent that morning in a doctor’s office being tested for TB. Hershel knows that the odds are stacked against him, but he also knows he has responsibilities that will keep him in the mine for the rest of his life. Always curious, he learns as many jobs as he’s allowed to explore and trains to be a member of the mine rescue team.
He marries Orie’s widow, Bessie, and takes on the role of father to her children whom he loves as his own. As a family that includes Bessie’s mother, Belle, and Bessie’s two younger brothers, Hershel’s father, Jeremiah, and Orie’s father, whom they always called Mr. Morris, they survive the brutality and exploitation of working class life in the early twentieth century-- the pay system that gave them scrip instead of money, that could be used only in the company store at inflated prices, or the requirement that they live in a company house from which they could be evicted at the whim of the coal operators. Working together, Bessie and Hershel finally reach their goal of two acres and a home of their own. The tragic story is lightened along the way by the sort of humor that marks large families, especially in the interplay between curmudgeonly Jeremiah and Bessie’s hot tempered mother, Belle, and by Christmas Eve magic that involved candy in window sills obviously brought by “Santa’s elves.” Hershel knows he must make his own joys because the sorrows will come unbidden. His joys were found in his wife and children and in his love of the natural beauty of Appalachia, its mountain streams, and even its cold winters that froze the rivers hard enough for ice skating, his lifelong passion. His sorrows lay deep under that landscape.