Thursday, December 3, 2015

Breaker Boys to Break Your Heart: Coal River by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Author Ellen Marie Wiseman knew she had a story that needed to be told. Her new novel Coal River takes readers on a journey back a hundred years ago, revealing the brutal life of children who worked in the coal mines. It was before worker's rights, unionization, and the establishment of the Department of Labor in 1913. Read Coal River and see if your heart doesn't break over the life of the Breaker Boys.

For ten or twelve hours a day these lads sat on a wood plank over conveyor belts, With bare hands they reached down to pick the slate and impurities out from the passing coal. The coal was washed, creating sulphuric acid which burned their flesh. The boys' fingers bled, their backs ached, they breathed in the coal dust. And too often the children tired and caught body parts in the belt and lost a hand or an arm, a foot or a leg. Or maybe they fell in and were crushed.
Breaker Boys at work
The story is about Emma who at age nineteen is an orphan. She has come to Coal River to live with her maternal aunt and family. Her uncle works at the coal mine. The mine is a looming presence that is inescapable: mountains of slag, pervasive coal dust, the burning culm banks lighting the night. The workers' houses, company owned, are filled with impoverished and distraught families with children missing body parts. The women can't find enough money to feed the family. And when the breadwinner is killed in the mines the family loses their home.

Emma has citified, modern ideas and is used to nonconformity and independence; her parents worked in theater. She also has bad memories of her only other visit to Coal River, for her younger brother Albert drowned in the river after a run-in with the local kids. She disdains her relations' old fashioned values based on fitting in and their wealth made on the backs and blood of the workers.

Emma is moved by the injustice she sees and becomes a (figurative and literal) underground activist, culminating in entering the mines as a breaker boy to photograph the illegal conditions and underage workers. She sends the photos to the New York Times. She becomes involved with a pro-union mine worker and is courted by the local sheriff--who is in the mine owner's pocket but hankers for Emma's love. The climax involves a mine accident, a murder, and Emma's incarceration.

Most readers will be riveted by Emma's story and the descriptions of life in a coal mine before government oversight and unionization. I commend the author's bringing the breaker boys to attention. Readers learn about how the mine owners controlled every aspect of the workers lives, holding them in near slaver. The writing is competent, especially the visual descriptions.

Emma will appeal to modern readers who like their heroine feisty, headstrong, and fearless. Like most contemporary historical fiction, she is not a woman of her time (1912). But she does share traits with muckrackers like Ida Tarbell and Nelly Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman). Lewis B. Hines makes an appearance in the story. I wish he'd had a bigger role. Hine's photographs of working conditions for children spurred national interest and the establishment of laws to protect children. His work clearly informs the character of Emma.
Lewis Hines photograph of boy mine workers
The portrayal of the mine owner and bosses, and the good ole boys in the owner's pocket, was one sided: totally evil, despicable, and immoral. They take the law into their own hands, dealing out 'justice' that supports profits and the power structure. Emma's uncle is not only mean, a miser, abusive, and a drunk, he also goes after young girls. (Remarkably, the girl LIKES him. Must be his power.) The resolution was forced and too clever. Talk about deus ex machina. I was disappointed. But romantics will love it.

Read about the Breaker Boys and other children mine workers discussed in the novel, and see photographs by Lewis W. Hines, at the Department of Labor website Little Miners here.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Coal River
Ellen Marie Wiseman
Kensington Books
Publication Date: November 24, 2015
$15 paperback

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