I used to go to West Virginia once a year to visit my grandmother, but I haven’t been there since she died. I’ve always been curious about the place, and maybe the recent election renewed my interest. After I read James Green’s book, The Devil is Here in These Hills, a friend recommended this one and, as usual, her recommendation was solid.
I admit it took a little while to warm to the book. I knew Giardina was casting her net wide by introducing the time, the place, the people, and the issues. The dialect can, at times, seem a bit hokey. But once the plot gets going, this story of The Battle of Blair Mountain becomes a riveting tale on both a personal and political level.
And with the LaborFest coming this weekend and everything. . .
Green’s book, subtitled West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom, covers the years from 1890-1933. I’ve started to become more interested in labor history and have a family connection to West Virginia. Like many others, according to the explanation Green offers as his reason for writing the book, I was not aware of the violent intensity between the miners and their families and the owners / operators of the mines. Green says repeatedly that there is no completely accurate account of how many people died, but everyone – the miners (some of whom were WWI veterans), the private guards the operators hired, the National Guard that had to be summoned, and even the US Army – all had guns. The organizers, the likes of Mother Jones, John Lewis and Frank Keeney, were amazingly persistent and resilient people, especially in an era when transportation and communication were far more difficult than they are today.
But the willingness of the ordinary and here often unnamed families to participate in strikes absolutely astounded me, especially in the later years when the country was experiencing a depression. At times, I wondered whether the rugged spirit that was formed in West Virginians during this time was a kind of precursor to Hillbilly Elegy, and perhaps another explanation of the result of our recent presidential election.
I was also quite taken with how diverse and integrated the union was from its very inception. Even when social forces interceded and resulted in things like segregated housing, the union was always open to all.
Green never really hides his pro-Union bias, and it never overwhelms his narrative. Despite this bias, he is critical of certain union decisions and tactics, particularly when corruption infected the organization.
Green makes the case that this is a story that needed to be told, and he told it well.