The Devil is Here in These Hills (Green)

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.


March: Book Three (Lewis, Aydin, Powell)

I think this is the best of the trilogy. Two things struck me right away. First, there’s less of Obama’s inauguration. Second, the art seems different – darker and less confined to the boxes. The story continues to be amazing. Though I knew most of the names and the incidents, it was quite something to realize that these pieces of history I knew were all pretty much happening at the same time. I appreciated Lewis’ candor about the in-fighting between and among various groups – SNCC, SCLC, etc. – as well as the beginning of impatience with Dr. King.

Now I issue my regular challenge to those who make graphic novels. If you want us to use them in schools, you must make them cheaper. You might even turn this trilogy into a school edition box set. This is a story that needs to be told, and this was a great way to tell it.

National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

March: Book Two (Lewis, Aydin, Powell)

John Lewis’ story continues in this, the second installment of what I’m becoming convinced is an important trilogy. It’s certainly one that I will hope will be priced within range for school use. The juxtaposition between Obama’s inauguration and developments in the 60s continues. And things get complicated here. There are divisions about tactics. There are arguments about language. There is more (brutally depicted) violence. There are criticisms of Dr. King. New names emerge – Bayard Rustin, the Kennedy brothers, John Seigenthaler, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael.

The illustrators are aware of the power of their tools. Consider the cover, with the image of a burning bus, Freedom Riders fleeing for their lives. Consider the back, a stained glass picture, with Jesus’ face shattered and missing. (You find out why when you read the story.) The writers are also aware of the power of words, letting much of John Lewis’  controversial speech during the March on Washington run over several pages and then printing it in its original form in the back of the book. Why, I wonder, doesn’t it get more attention? I know it was overshadowed by King’s, but it deserves its own place in history.

An important, teachable, necessary book.

March (Lewis, Aydin, Powell)

This graphic novel, the first in a trilogy about Lewis’ life, is an excellent book. Though the framing devices (Obama’s first inauguration, etc.) come off as somewhat forced, the story itself is compelling. Everything from Lewis’ early passion for both chickens and sermonizing (combined in quite a funny way) to his participation in the sit-ins at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement is rendered in clear prose and is accompanied by appropriately intense imagery. The images of Lewis looking out his bus window as it drove by a white school and his reaction when Martin Luther King tells him he’ll have to get his parents to sign a suit they want to bring in order to integrate Troy State are particularly memorable.

I like that the book does not shy away from potentially difficult moments. The image of Emmett Till suggests more than it shows, but there’s enough present for Lewis et all to make their point. I wondered about this for a while as the explicitness of the image Till’s mother showed the world was part of the reason his case had the impact it did. But this is not that. What’s here is enough.

I also admired how the book took up the differences between the generations involved in the Civil Rights Movement. I imagine it takes some guts to criticize Thurgood Marshall.

I would definitely use it in class, probably grades 6-12.

I look forward to the next two.