- Coal Hollow: Photographs and Oral Histories
Although intended as a series in contemporary photography, Coal Hollow: Photographs and Oral Histories should catch the eye of those interested in the history of coal mining in Appalachia and also draw in those interested in the culture of West Virginia, the ethnicity of its people, and the impact of mining on their way of life.
Cover to cover, Ken and Melanie Light's book is a true example of documentary journalism, from the forward by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich to the last biting words of noted West Virginia author and former gubernatorial candidate, Denise Giardina. This books documents the historical role that coal played in firing the furnaces to spur the industrial revolution of the late 1800s and show the consequences of a government that yielded too easily to the pressure of private industry.
This economic engine left its mark on southern West Virginia, raped its land, polluted its water, and stained the lives of many miners and their families. Coal mining also left a large part of this area of Appalachia in its dust, as reflected in the stories of such residents as "Faye," running the perpetual yard sale to makes ends meet.
The black and white photographs reflect the hard-top roads and white lines of the rural areas traveled by the authors. The subjects tell another story. God, country, and union—the three pillars of Southern West Virginia—are prominent in the photographs selected. Baptisms, weddings, funerals, hymnals, black lung, a "Praise Jesus" roadside sign, coal mines, revivals, and the UMWA are all depicted. But so are the Klan, "hillbilly" wrestling, double-wides, cock fights, children, old dogs, road kill, guns, poverty, beer, obesity, and snakes.
For purposes of labor studies, the section on oral histories offers insight into the struggles of several generations of coal miners, individuals just trying to earn a paycheck, or abandoning the challenge and moving to points north. The subjects of the book lived through the mine wars, and their accounts are not the same as one might read in a general book of labor history. For example, the story of Gene, a UMWA retiree, who still carries his union card, recounts the struggles of the UMWA to keep work. In contrast, Ernest blames [End Page 87] the union, in part, for pricing the workers out of the market.
Nick, the mayor of Northfork (McDowell County) recalls the early days of union organizing, the first union meeting held in a local church (because the coal companies owned all the other property). He recalls the Baldwin-Felts agents used to break the union. One journalist interviewed recounts the importance of the C&O railroad opening the area to interstate commerce. In modern times, tourism is a primary focus of many developers and the new federal prison in McDowell County represents economic development.
For anyone who has worked in a coal mine, or had a family member work in a mine, or anyone who hails from West Virginia or other similar parts of southern Appalachia, this book bears witness to the struggles of those unique inhabitants of this geographic area of Appalachia, where the beauty of the enclosing mountains, the deep hollows, and steep ridge lines barely compensates for the harshness of earning a livelihood in these isolated valleys.