- A Wave from the Past
The West Virginia Mine Wars are often buried at the bottom of the barrels of American history. Rarely, if ever, are they covered in high school classrooms, outside of West Virginia, and rarely, if ever, are they mentioned as an important moment that, though ultimately unsuccessful, helped define and set the stage for forced unionization in the 1930s. However, there may be no other time better to return to the Mine Wars and the reasons for the escalation of violence in southern West Virginia than now. The attacks on public and private sector unions have steadily increased and will no doubt continue to follow a path of restriction on collective bargaining rights. Perhaps a reminder of the former state of things would serve the populous best before we begin tromping whole-heartedly toward a state of swim-if-you-can individualism. The miners swam against the currents in the early part of the twentieth century, and though no one should advocate for a full-fledge riot or armed uprising, the lessons of their struggles, and, more importantly, the effects of their actions on the families behind the front lines, should not be lost to history.
Andrea Fekete's new and first novel, Waters Run Wild, situates the reader at the forefront of the union movement through the eyes of Jennie, an ambitious older sister whose sole desire at the book's opening is to marry a boy who teases her; Katie, her younger, brazen sister who would rather solve problems with her fists than her mouth; Anna May, the youngest sister, whose innocence permeates her chapters and whose voice is like hope in the wilderness; and the girl's mother, who, as the matriarch, makes a bold effort to hold her family together. There are male characters as well. Two brothers, Isaac and Ezra, who feel the pressure of providing for the family in a system guaranteed to keep them in poverty and debt. Finally, the father, though tragically flawed in his relationships with his sons, daughters, and wife, is asked to do things he simply cannot accomplish.
Fekete is a poet by trade, and this is apparent in her first novel. The chapters are short, splashes of the story, and the story's linear narrative is often interrupted by lesser characters. The land talks; the coal dust speaks. The water whispers to Isaac and his father as it fills up the mine where they are working and slowly consumes them. Death is a woman's experience in Waters Run Wild. Jennie and her sisters often find themselves at funerals and wakes, attending to their amorphous and somewhat ambiguous family. Grief is something internalized and weeds it way out through frustration and, in many cases, fear. Jennie fears what will happen to them after her mother dies, even though she proves to be a decent enough caretaker. The family fears they will not earn enough script from Ezra's work to feed themselves after Isaac and their father are drowned. In this constant state of fear and worry resides a kernel of hope for Jennie in the personage of Nandor, a boy who just might save her, and Fannie, the African American woman so polished she doesn't appear to belong amongst the coal dust who offers Jennie real salvation. The reader becomes attached to these characters. You care. You care because the pain they endure is so tremendous, yet they excel at carrying the burden. At one point, Jennie haphazardly thinks, "I just buried my daddy and my brother." There is sorrow and grief in the thought, but Jennie's moment, there on her top step, feels so passé that everyone knows she'll make it, even if she doesn't.
Waters Run Wild is beautifully written. The prose here sings with a poet's careful touch. Though the topics are as blunt as a baseball bat to the skull, the language never suggests such force. In fact, the narrative's nature, a predominantly woman's tale, seems to welcome Fekete's gentle hand. The...