Memoir: The Mountains and the Fathers

August 27, 2012 § 4 Comments

A guest review from Sean Prentiss:

In the prologue to Joe Wilkins’s new memoir-in-fragments, The Mountains and the Fathers, Wilkins writes, “In story we learn to live like human beings in the dark houses of our bodies.” That is exactly what The Mountains and the Fathers does. It creates a story for how an intelligent and awkward boy grows up in the tough and barren Big Dry of eastern Montana. It’s a story of how a boy can find a home in a fatherless landscape, how a boy can become a new sort of man in the ranchlands of Montana. And that narrative is what makes this memoir stand out as a new Western memoir that creates new and much-needed myths about manhood in the West.

The Mountains and the Fathers is the story of Wilkins growing up in the Big Dry before and after losing his father to cancer, of being raised by his mother, of hard days spent learning to ranch with his grandfather, and of nights spent skirting the edges of trouble in the tiny town of Melstone.

In this memoir, Wilkins is not just trying to become another hard-drinking, fast driving, woman-chasing man. Though he does all of these things, Wilkins also searches for surrogate fathers to replace his lost father. And through those surrogate fathers, Wilkins learns lessons on how to be a man, how to fail at being a man, and how to escape from the traditional narrative of the Western man. In an interview with Orion, Wilkins says, “We are told to believe in limitlessness, and we try, but we crash up against reality. Then we get bitter, turn inward, look for someone out there to blame.” This memoir is the story of a new telling, of a boy-man finding his place on the plains, finding a new way to be a man of the West.

But this memoir is also of and about the Big Dry. Throughout the book, the reader feels the need for water, the fear that another crop will fail, another farm will go under. We feel the smallness of Melstone. We feel the expansiveness of the Big Sky and the claustrophobia of being an awkward and book loving boy in a rough-hewn Western town.

And, finally, there is the language. If you handed me a poem or essay written by Wilkins, I’d know it even without a name attached because Wilkins—who writes out of the James Wright and Richard Hugo tradition—has a voice all his own. Each sentence is a hand-built and beautiful thing just like an old homesteaders cabin is a hand-built and beautiful thing. The words at time feel old and weary. Sometimes they feel expansive like Montana’s plains. Sometimes they suffocate the reader under the weight of expectations. Other times they are so dry and barren that they nearly blow off the page. But they are always poetic, and they always sing in a voice that so few writers possess.

Sean Prentiss is an assistant professor of English at Norwich University and is the author of the upcoming anthology on creative nonfiction, The Far Edges of Creative Nonfiction.

Goodbye Wifes and Daughters

November 16, 2011 § 2 Comments

A new review from our book review editor Debbie Hagan:

Goodbye Wifes and Daughters / Susan Kushner Resnick / University of Nebraska 2011

Of late, I’ve become a little obsessed in reading about early twentieth century mines. It began with a family tree and a couple of lines found in a 1906 newspaper regarding the closing of the Teddy Roosevelt Mine in Alba, Missouri: “The mine is where Frank Henley lost his life last week and three other mine workers were crippled for life by a cave-in from the roof.”

It’s just a two-inch story, drowning in a sea of gray type, tucked below the big story: a lightning strike that burned down a barn. Research shows me that turn-of-the-century mine cave-ins, accidents, and even death occurred with such regularity they barely ranked as news.

Only when I saw Henley’s name perched on my family tree next to my great-grandfather’s with this tiny subscript notation “died in mine,” did I become interested in a life spent in the throat of darkness.

Frankly I couldn’t picture it until I read Susan Kushner Resnick’s book,Goodbye Wifes and Daughters, a carefully researched narrative of a 1943 mining town, Bear Creek, Montana. It was an all-American town, at the foothills of the Rockies, complete with high school sweethearts, basketball games, and bigger-than-life Andy Hardy dreams. Even the mine possesses a type of macho romanticism, which D.H. Lawrence describes in Sons and Lovers, as a young girl considers her boyfriend’s profession: “She realized the life of the miners, hundreds of them toiling below earth and coming up at evening. He seemed to her noble. He risked his life daily, and with gaiety.”

Gaiety?  Hardly.  As Resnick shows, miners slaved, suffered devastating injuries, and gruesomely died. If their spirits lifted, it was only because they had surfaced uninjured and headed home for dinner. Simply put, mining provided a steady paycheck, and as the needs for coal increased, after the US involvement in World War II, retired (or soon-to-be-retired) miners returned to the mines often working extra long or double shifts. Sure they liked the extra money, but they did it to help the cause–help the boys fighting overseas.

Smith Mine didn’t hand out employee appreciation badges, but treated its miners more like tools–functional, replaceable, and forgettable. Even when state inspectors tagged Smith as “gassy” and insisted on more ventilation, rescue equipment, and better control over combustible coal dust, Smith paid no attention. It ordered miners to dig another air shaft–just to get the state off its back–but abandoned the project before completion. Rescue equipment never came, and management dismissed any idea of neutralizing coal dust. Thus, on February 27, 1943, the Smith Mine exploded and filled with gas.

Little could be done to save anyone, and the miners knew it; thus, one scratched onto his helmet, “goodbye wifes and daughters.” Gas masks and ventilators had to be retrieved from other mines. By the time they arrived, seventy-five men had died.

Resnick creates a powerful, page-turning narrative that feels like a peek into America’s past, but shockingly has more relevancy to the present than most of us would like to believe. In 2010, Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, exploded killing twenty-nine miners. Investigation showed that management had ignored repeated warnings of poor ventilation and inadequate gas control. James Joyce wrote, “A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” One would only hope the mining industry would use these portals to improve, rather than continue to dodge the system.

Debbie Hagan is Brevity’s book review editor and also managing editor of New England Home. Her essay on the Boston art scene will appear in 100 Boston Artists, to be published in 2012 by Schiffer Publishing.

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