MIDLOTHIAN, Va. — From the fury of a century-old conflict in the heart of West Virginia coal country, a new literary star is rising with the publication of a sparkling historical novel that cuts as deep as the black diamonds which powered the Industrial Revolution.
Tazewell native Jeff Barnes’ MINGO offers a sometimes heart-warming and often heart-breaking tale as entertaining as the great story of the coal fields, often called the equal of any in the Wild West. Brothers Durwood and Bascom Matney weave their way through adolescence into uneasy adulthood in the violent decade of 1912 –1921. From the oppression of non-union state coal mines to the shabby civility of Richmond’s segregated society, lives and loves won and lost keep the reader emotionally invested in a book hard to put down before the explosive finish.
The Mine Wars in West Virginia, fought between rough-and-ready mine owners who had often risked everything to make their fortunes under the rugged mountains and the brutally-used miners, an uneasy coalition of farmers, immigrants and former slaves seeking a better life, come to a head on the heights of Blair Mountain in the largest American insurrection since the Civil War.
The story is a tour de force of the period, meticulously researched and given to the reader in delightfully entertaining parcels of language from the hills and hollers to broad Monument Avenue in Richmond. Travel back in time to see and hear worlds destined to collide told by the people who lived there in a style which holds an interest page after fascinating page.
As the author observes, “It is a story revealing how time, distance and ideological differences can threaten even the closest relationships. Also, it explores how we are called on to help others, to be one another’s keepers.”
From Logan to Bluefield to the Welch Court House to Paint Lick Mine, from Matewan to Richmond to the steps of the Capitol in Charleston and into the steppes of Russia in World War I, the battle over the right to organize for better pay and working conditions strikes a chord that resonates between labor and management decades later.
The story begins with the fractured Matney family, as “Pa” Clem and the boys struggle to cope with the tragic loss of Mrs. Matney. When distant relations Grace and Walker Hopkins accept a request to raise Durwood in Richmond, 14-year-old Bascom and his father remain in Mingo and the mines. Years pass and lives are transformed before the two are reunited on the cusp of a clash between social and financial forces beyond their control.
Famed figures in West Virginia history, the notorious labor organizer Mother Jones, fearless sheriff Sid Hatfield, Logan County’s baron, Ben Chafin and Governor William E. Glasscock swirl through the coal field conflicts along with Tom Felts and the infamous Baldwin-Felts “detectives” hired to halt union sympathizers at any cost.
In a shattering conclusion, the brothers cross paths once more as the battle comes to a climax amid a hail of gunfire in the showdown on Blair Mountain.
Barnes, a 1977 Tazewell High graduate and now attorney in Richmond, says of his initial literary work, “Many of my classmates came from coal mining families and my father also attempted to make a living mining coal with a handful of workers but in light of the changes in the mine health and safety regulations of the early 70s, it was too expensive for small players like him. Those changes were necessary, mind you, for the safety of the workers.”
He continues, “When I saw John Sayles’ MATEWAN in the late 1980s, I was intrigued by a gun battle involving dozens of people during my father’s lifetime and that led to a discovery about the West Virginia Mine Wars. It made me realize that so little has been written about this pivotal period in American history.”
Barnes, who worked for three years to secure the literary material to prepare his book, concludes, “If I have done my job, I have managed to tell a compelling story while introducing readers to a part of Americana that they are unfamiliar with but intrigued to read more about.”
MINGO is a must read for all who enjoy a good story and want to learn more about one of the most exciting times in American history. Published by Little Star ($19.99) it is available wherever books are sold.