As a boy, I knew many old timers who lived through the era of the mine wars and the great depression and remember vividly the portraits they painted in my mind’s eye with their tales of life and its struggles in those rugged days.
Those memories came hauntingly back to life for me recently when I read an excellent new novel by a local author.
“Waters Run Wild” is the story of a family in rural southern West Virginia during the mine wars era, when coal camps were full of spies and Baldwin-Felts detectives, when miners were risking their lives to join unions and there were precious few conveniences to life. Specifically, it is the story of one family’s struggle during that era.
The author, Andrea Fekete, is a former teacher at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College and is a native of the Man area. I know Andrea, and to say that I was surprised when I read her book is an understatement. She has given a remarkable glimpse into life in rural Appalachia the way it was lived. Ironically, Andrea is one of those people who is very modern and urban in her sensibilities.
The small day-to-day life details in “Waters Run Wild” are startling in their authenticity.
From the gnats hovering around fresh picked berries to the characters using old newspapers to try to stop up the gaps in their coal camp house to keep the wind out in the winter time, this is what life was like in an earlier time. Most modern authors have eschewed small details, but Fekete embraces them and they make her novel even more enjoyable and authentic.
A lesser writer would fall back on stereotypes but the characters in “Waters Run Wild” are very believable. You have a gruff father who seems incapable of expressing any affection for his family until it is too late; and a long-suffering mother who is trying to keep her family going despite setbacks and tragedies. The bulk of the story is told from a moving, first-person view among the different characters — Isaac, the oldest son, who wishes to leave the coalfields and go to a big city to earn a living; Jeannie, Katie and Anna May, his sisters; younger brother, Ezra, who wishes Isaac would use his strength and stand up against their domineering father; Maw Maw May, the family matriarch; and Nandor, an eastern European immigrant who has come to their coal camp to find work and may find much more.
Things go from bad to worse following a flood in the mines and agitation between the mine operators and the union members. There are economic and emotional hardships experienced by not just the entire family but the entire community, harrowing encounters between the armed coal camp guards and union activists and some incidents of domestic terrorism from hooded Klansmen, all being portrayed in a very vivid and realistic manner.
“Waters Run Wild” is a vivid and enchanting portrait of the large struggles and small triumphs of life in the coalfields in an earlier and rougher era, a literary tour de force by a talented new author worthy of being compared to Davis Grubb, another great West Virginia author. It’s one of the best accounts of life in rural Appalachia I have read since I stumbled across John Sayles’ novel “Union Dues” in the Williamson public library some 20 years ago. One chapter of “Union Dues” was the source of Sayles’ classic movie “Matewan.”
At one point, serious fiction about rural life in Appalachia was a strong literary tradition, with such practitioners as Grubb (“Night of the Hunter”), and John Fox Jr. (“Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come”) creating classic works that have withstood the test of time. I lost a lot of hope for this genre when I read the abysmal “Clay’s Quilt” by the horridly overrated Silas House a few years back.
That novel of modern Appalachia was completely devoid of realism.
“Waters Run Wild” has restored my faith in what has always been one of American literature’s most solemn genres.
On October 25 at 6 p.m., Andrea Fekete will do a reading from her book and autograph copies at the Logan Area Public Library.