Remembering No. 9
I used to live in Farmington, WV. Not the village proper — that was a couple of miles down the back road or Route 250 North. But I lived in the Zip code of one of the most tragic disasters in mining history.
On Nov. 20, 1968, 99 men went underground at Consolidation Coal Co.'s No. 9 mine. Seventy-eight of them died when the mine exploded.
Giant plumes of smoke rose high into the air. (See video here.) The fires that followed raged for more than a week, until the mine was sealed with concrete to cut off oxygen. It was not until the next September that the mine was unsealed, and mining began in an effort to reach the bodies. Methane and cave-ins continued to plague the recovery efforts over the next decade. Fifty-nine families eventually were able to bury their dead. Eighteen men could not be reached, and their bodies are entombed near the site of the black granite memorial, at the Llewellyn portal.
This was no "act of God." Investigations bore out the miners' complaints—poor ventilation and high levels of coal dust and methane, the situation exacerbated by failures to test for gas and to keep ventilation equipment operating. No one was ever held to account by either state or federal authorities.
My little hill farm, like most of the area, was undermined and laced by "mine cracks" where the earth had subsided over the workings. I was told that the tunnels under the farm were part of No. 9, something that came to mind often as I hauled city water for the cows (the springs had been destroyed by mining) and skirted the most hazardous of the mine cracks while haying the back field.
The disaster led directly to the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, signed by President Richard Nixon and enacted into law at the end of 1969. It increased federal mine inspections and toughened mine standards nationwide.
This was the second time a disaster in Marion County, WV, led to nationwide action to protect miners. The Monongah Mine Disaster in 1907 "officially" killed 362, the majority of them immigrants, though the death toll was higher as it was common for miners to take children down with them to help load coal. The worst mining disaster in American history, Monongah led to creation of the federal Bureau of Mines.
The Monongah mines were part of Fairmont Coal Co., owned by the Watson family whose mansion still stands in Fairmont. In a merger, this company became Consolidation Coal Co., owner of the Farmington No. 9 Mine.
I think of these events when the leaves fall, remembering that hill farm and the community of coal miners and former miners. Those memories played a major role in the creation of To the Bones.
To the Bones news
Watch for more news: To the Bones will be coming out as an audiobook in 2021, thanks to support from the NC Arts Council/Yadkin Valley Arts.
To the Bones was a finalist for the Manly Wade Wellman award and was shortlisted at the Killer Nashville awards.
Twitter book reviewer Well-Read Beard has given To the Bones a theme song ....
April Read of the Month
To the Bones was the April Read of the Month at the Southern Literary Review. Here's an excerpt from Donna Stanley Meredith's review:
"...blending popular genres like horror and mystery into an environmental disaster story possibly exposes a wider audience to the importance of clean water and energy. And perhaps literary purpose lurks behind Eamon's superpowers. A coal baron, he "sucks the life out of everything," analogous to the way coal extraction drains life from the miners, the way coal barons take the resources of the land for themselves and leave the community poorer, and the way all of us as carbon consumers extract the life from coal, which is, after all, compressed and heated former living things. Kudos to Nieman for her creativity and vision as she tackled these vital environmental themes."
Cemetery Dance posts rave review of To the Bones
"...Part mystery, thriller, and supernatural horror, this tale was extremely enjoyable to read. It's one of my favorite books of the past year. Ms. Nieman's writing is poetically engaging, and I was whisked back to my university days when I was overwhelmed by James Dickey's Deliverance. Even more so, I vividly recalled a small volume of poems by Mr. Dickey entitled The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy. Fifty years later, I am still haunted by one of those poems.
Like Mr. Dickey, Ms. Nieman's prose reaches deep inside our human condition and I found her descriptions of coal, mining, and West Virginia communities insightful and emotionally moving. And I am not a person who finds solace in coal mining and poverty of the spirit. In her hands, the setting of this story is an equal character with the protagonists. Her description of yellowboy, a river turned "greasy orange under plates of stained ice," actually made my stomach turn and my heart ache..."
-- Click for the full R.B. Payne review in Cemetery Dance
"Valerie Nieman's Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse sweeps aside everything you might think about sideshow and carnival performers of the mid-20th century. Her poems open up the private life of a mixed-race woman, Dinah, the titular Leopard Lady....
Leopard Lady is a truly amazing book that succeeds in several areas. It illuminates how carnival artists are united by the very diversity that sets them apart from commonly perceived norms. It reveals the life of one woman who, it turns out, is more like every woman than may be imagined. And for those not inclined to read poetry, Nieman's writing is so skilled, so smooth, that her poetry unfolds like a piece of fascinating prose."