In 1972, Silverton, Idaho is in the middle of nowhere, it's only reason for being the silver mine that needs workers. Men are paid well, trading long lives and their health for good money. They work hard, then play hard, frequenting the bar to drink and brawl. They are proud of their toughness.
Silverton is infused with toxins that ruin skin and health.
"There was arsenic in the smoke, chromium, cadmium, lead. Part of what it cost to live here...people died here after a while, lung cancer, liver cancer, for a few months the other year everybody seemed to have leukemia."
The women think about leaving their men, and do leave men who can't leave the only life they know. And when someone does break out, like David who is in college, they feel alienated and conflicted, resenting the pampered life of green shady lawns and uncalloused soft hands.
"This was never going to be his life, anyways, these leafy maples that meet overhead, a canopy over the street. Shingled houses with white trim, green lawns, third stories, turrets and arches. In a way, it feels good to let go, stop pretending. This place has its membership and he isn't part of it."
The third year of college is ending when David hears there has been a disaster at the mine. He drives his VW home. His father and his brother work in the mines.
The disaster claims 91 lives. David's brother is one of the dead. The stunned town struggles. Widows drown their sorrows in booze but find there is no haven from regret and grief. Two men are trapped for 14 days, and coming above ground reevaluate their lives. David reconsiders his choice to leave for another life.
This is a story about grief.
"Everything in life can be taken from you in an instant. Any minute. She had known this before. But now she understands it."
"Her friend is dead. But she could only forget it or else think about nothing else, and there is nothing to think, nothing to say. It cannot be undone. It cannot be fixed. It cannot be tolerated...Something breaks inside her, a little thing like a Popsicle stick."One widow, Ann, who at twenty-two was already weary of her life and childlessness before the accident, now regrets not cherishing her husband more. Ann realizes she had closed the door on so many possibilities when she decided to stay in Silverton and marry. Now she is 'free' to choose again, but the choices seem limited.
Ann goes to a bar seeking a bartender who once seemed interested in her; now he doesn't recognize her and she thinks, "all this just seems so corrupt. A stimulus, a response, a line, a body. People just want to fuck...They see a woman, alone, vulnerable, they move in for the kill. That's how it is. A lonely woman is the devil's playground."
Ann had sung as a schoolgirl and now joins the church choir. She experiences the sense of greater community found in choral singing.
"The third time through the 'Ave Maria' she feels it, that lovely moment in which everything else drops away and she becomes this column of air, supported by the hips, her jaw dropping into the high notes, this physical thing becomes musical, becomes music, and all around her the same thing is happening and they are singing together, almost beautifully."Ann becomes friends with David's brother's widow Jordan, whose grief plays out in angry and self-destructive behavior. David is drawn to Ann.
Some don't survive the death of their loved one, some try to leave. Ann and David turn to each other in their grief and in their need reach, again, for love. They have been to hell and back. Perhaps they will yet find some comfort in the world.
The Underworld is fiction based on an actual mine disaster. I loved the writing and Canty's moving characters. I look forward to reading more of Canty's work.
I received a free book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
W. W. Norton