It’s a sad irony that some of the characters in Storming Heaven witnessed the Civil War, only to see Americans go to war against each other again fifty-six years later. Again, the issue was slavery, although of a different kind. It was the tyranny of coal mining companies over their employees.
The 1921 battle of Blair Mountain, West Virginia resulted from years of desperation. Author Denise Giardina has skillfully retold the known facts of this history through the eyes of fictional coal mining families, giving us a sense of the ruthless exploration, poverty, illness and violent death that led to a five-day battle between striking miners and coal company mercenaries.
The many characters include Carrie Bishop, a nurse; Rondal Lloyd, a preacher turned union organizer; and Doc Booker, a black physician. They tell anecdotally how railroad companies swindled Appalachians out of their farmland and sold it to coal companies. Soon, they found themselves working in dangerous conditions, living in coal company houses, paid in coal company scrip that they could spend only in coal company stores. “They broke their backs and died of roof falls and rib rolls and gas, their children went to bed hungry, and died of the typhoid, their wives took the consumption, they themselves coughed and spit up … They stayed in debt to the company store, they had no say at the mine or freedom of any kind, they could be let go at a moment’s notice and put out on the road, or beaten, or shot.” Inevitably, labor union organizers arose to demand better conditions, only to be brutally suppressed.
There is much more to the novel than fighting and suffering. Despite their misery, the characters harbor a deep love for their land and each other. Christian faith and wisdom shine through their inelegant speech. Carrie’s intermittent romance with Rondal suffers amidst his deepening involvement in union activities. There is even a sinister kind of entertainment as the mining companies form a baseball league to defuse some of the tension. I especially enjoyed a chapter describing a terrific game between miners and their oppressors.
I give Storming Heaven four stars out of five only because of its frequent foul language, racial slurs and profanity. There are a few mild sex scenes.