Storming Heaven (1987) is the bloody story of coal miner unionization efforts in West Virginia and Kentucky in the nineteens and twenties, culminating in the notorious, but little-known, “Battle of Blair Mountain” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Blair_Mountain). The narrative is polyvocal, with chapters switching between the first person narrative of Carrie Bishop, CJ Marcum, and Rondal Lloyd.
Through these characters’ eyes we see how Southern West Virginia was radically changed– economically, environmentally, socially– by the incursion of coal interests in the later half of the 19th century and early 20th. All of our narrators are firmly positioned in favor of the worker and against the coal operators. But in the coalfields, where families are stuck in debt to company stores, are unable to freely assemble or speak out against the coal industry, and who died from cave ins, firedamp blow outs, “gun thugs,” and infectious diseases like cholera and typhoid, our narrators’ position is hardly an easy place to be.
The book is, overall, quite melodramatic and in this vein it can be maudlin or heavy-handed with it’s imagery. Take, for example, Carrie’s brother who goes to college only to become a cruel overseer for the coal camps; he is given a cigar-cutter in a shape of a guillotine that periodically and uncomfortably cuts his fingers (eye-rolls all around). But this isn’t a book overly occupied with creating a sense of moral ambiguity around this sordid chapter of American history, and so the heavy-handed tone and imagery serves to underscore the oppression that marked — and in many ways continues to mark– the national sacrifice zones in Appalachia.
If you think “the future of Labor is the future of America,” like John L. Lewis, then you’ll probably find this book in your future too. I Re-coal-mend it!
Review Submitted by: Shane D. Hall