Coal River is a historical romance novel by Ellen Marie Wiseman. It takes place in Coal River, an unhappy coal-mining town in rural Pennsylvania. Emma Molloy is a young woman whose parents recently died in a fire, leaving her alone in the world except for her Aunt Ida and Ida’s husband Otis and son Percy. Given a choice between the poorhouse and living with them in Coal River, she reluctantly returns to their home, a place haunted by memories of her brother who drowned in a tragic accident there when she was ten.
Returning as an adult, she quickly becomes aware of the great injustices of coal mining in 1912, around the time of the great Westmoreland County Coal Strike and more than twenty years before the National Labor Relations Act guaranteed the right to unionize. Forced to work in the company store, she uses her position to mark debts paid and steal food, a very short term form of assistance that is quickly detected and leads to violent repercussions.
She witnesses premeditated murders committed by the mine owner and his corrupt police. She is attached to and openly pursues an acquaintance with a coal miner and labor agitator Clayton Nash. She is determined to help the miners and most particularly the breaker boys, children illegally employed at dangerous, back-breaking work in the mine. Ignoring all danger and common sense, she pursues justice for the miners.
While there is plenty of action Coal River and I appreciate the value of writing about the economic justice struggle and labor battles of the past, this book is ultimately disappointing. Emma is all pluck and luck without one lick of sense. She’s the most important character in the book and is not even the least nuanced. So you can imagine how undeveloped the rest of the characters are. There are good people and evil people and the evil people don’t even pretend to be good. That’s not how people are. Most people who do evil think of themselves as good and rationalize and justify their evil. Snidely Whiplash is for morning cartoons.
More embarrassingly, the resolution goes beyond deus ex machina to deus ex atrium. I kid you not. There is a court scene with multiple interventions that are increasingly unlikely and a marsupial judge who seemed to have no care for what was recorded in the record. It is all quite ridiculous. Moreover, I dislike the message that the workers cannot organize for themselves, but must be rescued by benevolent mine owners. Right, the secret to a just society is just making sure kind people own corporations. This denial of the agency of the miners after an entire story about needing to stand up to an exploitive mine owner is unacceptable.
I received a review copy of Coal River from the publisher through a GoodReads drawing.