Coal River by Ellen Marie Wiseman A Book Review

“On the last day of June, in the year when the rest of the world was reeling from the sinking of the Titantic, nineteen-year old Emma Malloy was given two choices: get on the next train to Coal River, Pennsylvania, or be sent to a Brooklyn poorhouse.”

First of all–great first sentence. Need to keep this one for future study.

Second–though I won this book in a goodreads giveaway (which means I had to enter to win it)–upon receiving it, I confess I was not overjoyed at the prospect of reading something which looked to be rather grim reading. I don’t know much about working in a coal mine, but I know enough to know it was (and is) a far from pleasant life–especially in 1912. So, I reluctantly began my reading, but was soon drawn into the story of Emma and her rather tragic life.

Wiseman tells a difficult story well and manages to make it entertaining. Emma is forced to live with her aunt and uncle when her parents die in a fire. Her relatives see her as a burden, (though her free labor is a bonus), but that is not the worst part of Emma’s life. Seeing how the miners and their families are forced to live and how poorly they are treated by the owner of the mine as well as those under him (such as Emma’s uncle) tears at her heart and makes her determined to try to find a way to help them.

Doing what she can for the miners and their families, Emma puts herself in very dangerous situations as she not only tries to help them, but also to let the world know how the miners, especially the children, are being treated. In spite of laws having been passed to protect children and other workers, these laws are being ignored by the owner of the mine.

As ever when I read a book of historical fiction, I am interested in why the writer chose their subject and how much of it is based on fact and true events. Wiseman says she has long been “fascinated” by coal mining, but learning of the breaker boys made it “a story that needed to be told.” I agree and can highly recommend this book.

Wiseman has written three other books of historical fiction, and I look forward to checking them out. How about you? Have you read any of Wiseman’s books?

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