Spanning three decades, Denise Giardina’s novel Storming Heaven follows families in West Virginia and Kentucky as they navigate a transformed landscape. This work of historical fiction opens in 1890, “the year the railroad come in and took up our land, two year before the land was give out from under us to the coal company.”
The primary players are C.J. Marcum, a West Virginian who resents the coal companies encroaching on family land; Rondal Lloyd, kin to C.J. and an avid union organizer; and Carrie Bishop, a nurse from Kentucky who becomes embroiled in the union’s fight against American Coal. Through these characters and others, the reader witnesses the rise of the coal companies in Kentucky and West Virginia and the stranglehold they have on their workers. The story’s action culminates in the Battle of Blair Mountain, a labor uprising that pitted workers who wanted the protection of a union against the coal companies and the U.S. government.
The novel begins with the coal companies driving families off their land through both legal and illegal means. Some, like C.J. Marcum, stick around because they have no other choice; others, like Dillon Lloyd, retreat to the mountains rather than witness their homestead become “… all mud and ugly, men sellin their souls for the almighty dollar.” C.J. witnesses his grandfather murdered for refusing to sign away his land rights to the coal company, an event that makes tangible the philosophy espoused by his friend and mentor, Dillon. Papaw Marcum is the last bastion of the “old way,” and after his death, C.J. and his surviving family are forced off the land they had occupied since 1801.
C.J. ends up in Annadel, WV, one of the few towns in the area that operates outside of the coal companies’ jurisdiction. The Lloyd family is less fortunate: Dillon’s brother Clabe begins working for the mine and soon finds himself indebted to the company store, unable to earn enough “scrip” to pay it off. In an attempt to alleviate his debts, he brings his two young sons to work with him. Eight-year-old Talcott is set to work separating coal from slate, while 10-year-old Rondal joins his father in the mines. After witnessing a miner crushed to death, Rondal is taken to Annadel to stay with C.J.
C.J., now a socialist and union supporter, is anxious to keep Rondal from the mines. However, Rondal returns to the mines years later, believing C.J. is impractical, explaining, “We aint got the old way no more. We got the new way. That’s what I got to live.”
Rondal begins working for the coal company and becomes involved with a group of union organizers. The coal operators are vehemently opposed to the formation of unions and used hired Baldwin-Felts guards to dissuade any attempts. The guards, called “gun thugs” by the miners, kill or drive out any miners looking to form a union. Rondal is forced out of his coal-operated town and flees to Kentucky, where he meets Carrie Bishop. Carrie sympathizes with Rondal’s union goals because she sees firsthand the squalid conditions of the coal towns. Rondal and Carrie’s paths become further entangled through a mutual acquaintance, an African American doctor called Doc Booker, a friend of C.J.’s and a fellow union sympathizer.
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Rondal and other union supporters continue organizing, and after nearly two decades, their underground organization is thousands strong. Miners in support of the union begin striking across several coal towns; in turn, the coal operators turn the striking miners and their families out of their company houses. Tent cities crop up throughout several West Virginia counties, and provisions sent by the union are often intercepted by Baldwin-Felts guards. Still, the miners hold strong, even after martial law is declared by the governor and U.S. troops are sent to disband the striking miners.
The strikes and the novel culminate in the Battle of Blair Mountain, which would become known as the largest armed uprising since the American Civil War. The fight pitted strikers against Sheriff Don Chafin’s army of state police, who were later joined by federal troops. Outmatched, the miners disperse after several days of fighting and, for the time, concede defeat. The novel’s afterword notes that “not until the administration of Franklin Roosevelt 12 years later was the union given the freedom to organize and the mine guard system abolished.”
The Coal Wars were a heartbreaking — but vitally important — chapter in our state’s history. Moreover, it fills the reader with a sense of pride: Giardina’s characters, though fabricated, are based on real players in the Coal Wars who risked life and limb to prove that mountaineers are always free. Giardina’s portrayal of the striking miners and their families is imbued with the values long-held by West Virginians, including our self-reliance, perseverance and dedication to freedom.
Storming Heaven treats its characters with respect and empathy, a refreshing change of pace from media that often portrays West Virginians as backward and ignorant. Giardina also highlights the interesting and often forgotten history of the term “rednecks,” which was born out of the Coal Wars. Striking miners would wear red bandanas around their necks as a sort of uniform during the Battle of Blair Mountain. Rondal observed that “the gun thugs called us rednecks. It was a name we accepted with pride.”
With its sympathetic characters and riveting storyline, coupled with a strong narrative structure, Storming Heaven is one of the best pieces of literature to come out of West Virginia. The concept of place, like the pull of the mountains, is a powerful one, and one many native West Virginians can relate to. Giardina understands what it means to be a mountaineer and weaves throughout the narrative the superstitions, beliefs and connection to land that shape Appalachian culture. In short, if you want to feel proud to be a West Virginian, read this book.
• Raised in Wellsburg, West Virginia, Anna Cipoletti is a proud alumna of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, West Liberty University and Kent State University. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from West Liberty in 2014 and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Kent State in 2017. Anna has made a career out of a lifelong love of books and works full-time at Bethany College as a librarian and parttime as a bookseller and book reviewer. She resides in Beech Bottom with her sister and two Siamese cats. A nature enthusiast, Anna often spends her free time visiting one of West Virginia’s many beautiful parks or kayaking along Buffalo Creek.