Friday, October 3, 2008
Coal Soot and How It Appeals to Me
Authoress Bathsheba Monk has written a fine book of interconnected short stories titled Now You See It: Stories from Cokesville, PA. Whenever I hear that someone has written a book set in a coal town, I want to read it. Maybe it harks back to my teen aged forays into the works of D.H. Lawrence. Other titles with coal soot appeal include: Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh and Sister Mine by Tawni O'Dell.
Bathsheba Monk grew up in a family of Pennsylvania coal miners, and clearly she knows of what she writes. Most of these stories are set in the aftermath of the great days when coal was king. The men that went in to the mines are unemployed or dead, some by their own hand. Cokesville was also a steel town, and steel too has done a runner. Not surprisingly, many of Monk's characters aspire to make it out of Cokesville. Best friends Annie Kusiak and Theresa Gojuck, one a writer, the other an actress, never quite get over their coal town childhoods, even though they make it as far away as California. The character of Annie appears most often, lending a stability to this varied collection of stories. She is misunderstood by her family, who see no value in her literary ambitions. When Teresa's celebrity is slipping, all she has to do is go back to Cokesville, where she is guaranteed to be hounded for autographs.
A favorite story here is "Little Yellow Dogs" featuring Mrs. Wojic, who was known throughout Cokesville for her cleanliness. She and her husband had nine children, and everyone was put to to work keeping their house clean ("You'd think the Pope was coming to visit the way they cleaned that house.") Sidewalks were scoured, siding was hosed down and gardens were neatly tended. Then after the children grow up and leave, and Mrs. Wojic loses her husband, a curious thing happens. Mrs. Wojic adopts a stray yellow dog who comes to her door. She lets the cleaning slide. But oh, how she tends that dog, brushing his hair and talking to him. We come to find out that shortly before Mr. Wojic died, he promised his wife he would come back as an animal, say, a little yellow dog, and keep her company. The problem comes when a second little yellow dog appears at her door. Which one is her husband departed?
What is about the coal town setting that appeals to me? Maybe its the down to earth characters. Or the clannishness of the families. Or the desperate edge they live on, sacrificing their lives for the middle class comfort of the rest of the country. I read and enjoy so many books with Manhattan or beachtown settings. Also I'm drawn to anything set in the legendary West. Then there is a vast "other" settings category. I've never known a coal miner, and have barely seen a slag heap or blast furnace, but I'm curious just the same. The United States of America has and does include characters of coal, and Ms. Monk has successfully carved their images in sharp contrast to the great majority of red, white and blue lives.
How refreshing such regional fiction is, taking us to other worlds existing not so very faraway from ours, judging by how the crow flies. But further still by other measures, reaching deep into infinite variations of the human soul. I've decided that I must by nature be a dreamer, for I never tire of cracking open a new novel and trying on life as lived by another. Getting right inside another person's mind so that we know what it's like looking out through their eyes; now that's a trick I never tire of. Coal soot and all.....