Taylor Brown's 'Rednecks' book review: NPR

St. Martin's Press


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St. Martin's Press

Coal, plucked from deep within the earth, helped build this country and saw it through many wars. But to get that coal, miners had to risk their lives every day for long, grueling hours.

Between cave-ins, methane explosions, accidents, and black lungs, mining was a deadly business, and those who profited from it the most never had to deal with any of those dangers. The result of the division between those who risked their lives and those who made the money led to the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. About 10,000 miners of all races rose up against the mine owners who opposed their union, the government , fought. with the owners and the state militia.

Taylor Browns Rednecks is a beautiful historical drama full of violence and larger-than-life characters that chronicles the events of 1920 and 1921 while exploring the people and reasons behind the largest labor uprising in American history.

Rednecks is an extended story that begins with the Matewan Massacre, which took place in the spring of 1920 when local miners and their allies had a bloody shootout with the Baldwin-Felts, who were responsible for evicting people who had joined the miners' union . From there, the novel follows the major events leading up to and during the Battle of Blair Mountain.

The chapters follow several characters: “Doc Moo” Muhanna, a Lebanese-American doctor who cares about the health of those trapped in the tent camps and who helped everyone and was respected on both sides of the conflict; Frank Hugham, a black miner and World War I veteran who is beaten and left for dead by the men trying to control the miners and subjugate the union; and Beulah, Frank's grandmother, a woman with an unbreakable spirit and a great sense of humor. The novel also features some real-life historical figures: Mother Jones, the fiery, unyielding union organizer, and 'Smilin' Sid Hatfield, who played a crucial role in the Matewan Massacre and whose mouth was full of gold teeth and a talent for righteous deeds. violence made him a legend.

Rednecks draws readers into the middle of the conflict, drawing them into the battlefield, the mines, the streets full of armed men eager to pull the trigger, the courts where good and bad decisions were made, and the cold, muddy tent camps where the displaced the owner of the mines made money. Brown, a writer who always delivers impeccable prose, also delivers great pacing and economy of language here, telling a very big story from multiple perspectives without ever slowing down or getting too caught up in the plethora of details that his research has certainly brought to light.

There are indeed passages in it Rednecks that describe more and achieve more than some short stories. This paragraph about miners looking at the houses they have been evicted from is a perfect example:

“Now other men slept in those same beds, in the shelter of those hard roofs and milled plank walls. Crusts. Men from out of state, whose labor kept the mines smoking on the slopes as the coal carts and conveyor belts drifted toward daylight. The company books are in black. I allowed the Union miners to sleep in canvas tents without their demands being met. Their women had dull eyes from hunger and their feet were dark with mud. Their children's faces are emaciated so that they could see their little skulls penetrate the skin and crawl to the surface.”

Historical fiction tends to stick to facts, but that doesn't mean authors can't take a stand and make a point. In RednecksBrown makes it very clear from the start: the miners were right. Each time the novel delves deeper into the conflict and explores how it all came about, Brown reminds readers that the miners worked very long hours in appalling conditions and, above all, wanted things that would help them live longer, things that were so are as fundamental as better ventilation. in the mines. On the other hand, the mine owners were soft men with soft hands, who had never set foot in a mine and who were happy to send entire families to cold, muddy encampments or order killings and beatings just to maximize their income. History has not been kind to those who oppose miners' unions, and neither is Brown.

Although this is a novel about something that happened over 100 years ago, it also feels very current. Even today, many large corporations are very anti-union, and their focus on revenue is the same as it was for mine owners. The division between those who work for a living and those who benefit most from that work is still an issue, and makes this action-packed, character-driven novel feel extremely contemporary.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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