COAL RIVER is the second book I've read by Ellen Marie Wiseman, and both times the stories were led by strong, but emotionally scarred young women. Nineteen year old Emma Malloy never intended to step foot in Coal River, Pennsylvania when she left nine years earlier. Even mentioning the town brings back memories of her younger brother's drowning. But when her parents die in a fire, leaving her penniless and homeless, she must accept her aunt's offer to return to the coal mining town. Upon her arrival, it is clear that she is not being welcomed into the family, but instead expected to work as an unpaid servant for her uncle, an upper official at the mine. She cannot shut off the memories of the "mean boys", now men of the community, who bullied her little brother all those years ago, but soon her attention is drawn to the plight of the "breaker boys" who spend ten hours or more a day sorting and breaking coal into uniform pieces. Despite new child labor laws, some of these boys are as young as 6 years old, and often their work ends in damaged or severed limbs, or even death. She also can't ignore the crushing poverty that almost every mining family faces. Food and supplies must be bought at the company store, and the weekly pay checks are never enough to cover the inflated prices. Coal dust covers the walls and windows of the shacks assigned to the families, and every wife fears the death wagon that delivers a deceased body to the doorstep.
While a few miners band together to plan a peaceful strike, it appears that someone else is ready to invoke violence. Despite fearing that her uncle will discover her interest in helping the young boys and the starving families, Emma begins to take action of her own.
I was really drawn into this story at first, but then found some parts confusing and overly dramatic in the middle. Then the book ended with a unanticipated and disappointing (to me) twist, leaving me with mixed feelings about the book. The appearance of Lewis Hine, a famous photographer who helped change the plight of child laborers, including mine workers, seemed a last ditch stab at winding up the story in a successful way. I am familiar with his photos and have read about his work.
His inclusion in this book was not given the seriousness he deserves. I've read other reviews of this
book online, and it seems to be earning mixed reviews -- which sums up my personal reaction. Wondering what other historical fiction books cover coal mining; would like to read another for comparison.