On all accounts, protagonist Loyal Ledford seems to be a typical American man: The Marrowbone Marble Company opens on an eighteen-year-old Ledford working for the Mann Glass Company while taking classes at Marshall and courting a nurse named Rachel. After hearing the now-famous “Day of Infamy” speech delivered by FDR after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ledford does what is expected of him and enlists. Joining the Marines as a Sharpshooter, Ledford is shipped off to Guadalcanal where he and his fellow soldiers experience the horrors of war firsthand. Ledford makes friends with several comrades and serves as best he can until a shattered ankle sends him home. Once home he continues to do what is expected of him by returning to Mann Glass, marrying Rachel, and starting a family.
Ledford’s homecoming coincides with that of another Mann Glass employee, Mack Wells. The difference between Ledford and Mack’s homecomings is stark: “When Mack Wells had returned to his janitorial duties…it was with little fanfare. Unlike the other GIs, his return was not featured in the company newsletter.” Due in part to his studies at Marshall and his discipleship under philosophy professor Don Staples, Ledford chafes at the way Mack is treated. A new boss, Charlie Ball, makes things worse: while Ledford climbs the company ladder, Mack and his wife Lizzie are threatened with termination by Mann Glass. Spurred by his friendship with Mack and Staples, Ledford becomes more embroiled in the fight for equality. At the same time, he struggles to re-integrate himself into civilian life and often turns to the bottle to cope with his combat-based nightmares. Having a family changes this little by little, but the true catalyst comes in the form of a dream where a deceased soldier gives a simple order: “make marbles.”
After visiting Marble City in Friendly, WV with Mack and seeing how the factory “had brought jobs just as the miners had started to lose them,” Ledford decides to follow the dreamt directive. He approaches some previously-unknown relatives, the Bonecutters, with a business proposition. After a house fire caused by a member of the rival Maynard family, brothers Wimpy and Dimple are the only Bonecutters living on the 500-acre tract of Marrowbone Cut. Ledford asks for use of the land to build a marble factory and dwellings for its employees and, oddly enough, the request is accepted readily after Ledford explains that the directive to make marbles came to him in a dream. The brothers also accept that Mack Wells and his family will live and work on their land; after ascertaining that the Wells had no connection to Maynard Coal, Dimple declares that “I don’t give a damn what color he is. He and his are welcome here.”
The titular Marrowbone Marble Company is erected and the land around it developed to include housing for its workers and a chapel where Staples serves as preacher. The community grows slightly beyond its founding members, but causes friction within the larger community due to its integration. The Marrowbone community takes the push-back and distrust in stride, however, and the Ledfords, Wells, and Don Staples continue their work with the civil rights movement. Staples is committed to nonviolent protest and his congregation follows suit, even if a few members, including Ledford and Harold Wells, have doubts about its effectiveness.
Inroads are made with the surrounding community but change is not easily won and the officials of Wayne County are determined to stay in power by hook or by crook. The Marrowbone community is often at odds with unscrupulous sheriff Shorty Maynard and Mann Glass owner Charlie Ball as they continue their work toward equality and integration. Shortly after the death of the community’s moral compass Staples, however, the Marrowbone community is rocked when tragedy befalls one of Ledford’s children at the hands of the corrupt officials. After decades of nonviolent protest, Ledford is forced to consider if he will turn the other cheek or renounce his pacifism and take revenge.
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I will admit that I was, let’s say, underwhelmed by this book. I read The Marrowbone Marble Company shortly after a reread of Taylor’s much-acclaimed debut novel The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart and comparisons between the two were inevitably drawn. It would be easy enough to chalk Taylor’s second novel up as a sophomore slump, but I felt it wasn’t that straightforward; instead, it seemed I had missed something. I avoid reading reviews before and after reading something I intend to review myself, so instead I turned to academic journals for insight. The Marrowbone Marble Company has not been discussed extensively (at least not that I could find) but Taylor and his works are mentioned in a chapter of the Palgrave Handbook of the Southern Gothic. In a chapter about the Gothic Appalachia genre, author Sarah Robertson notes Taylor’s interest in “debunking hillbilly stereotypes and promoting heterogeneity” and in The Marrowbone Marble Company “explores both racial hatred and the desire to overcome debilitating ideas of difference and otherness.”
By framing the novel within the Gothic Appalachia tradition, I felt a deeper appreciation for an otherwise underwhelming book. In true gothic Appalachian fashion, Taylor challenges preconceived notions about the region by “direct[ing] our attention to the stories not told, offering a ‘history of the unrealized’” by including the oft-forgotten African-American and Native American voices of the area.
The Marrowbone Marble Company may not be Taylor’s best work, but I appreciate his effort to include events and voices not often seen or heard in Appalachian literature. With the exception of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s memoir Colored People, this is one of the few instances of Appalachian literature I have read that discussed the Civil Rights era in depth. That, as well as its inclusion of the glass industry in West Virginia, makes the novel worth a read.
1Robertson, Sarah. “Gothic Appalachia.” Palgrave Handbook of the Southern Gothic, Jan. 2016, pp. 109-20.
• 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.