Storming Heaven (1987): Meeting the responsibilities of historical fiction

Denise Giardina’s novel storming heaven (Ivy Books, 1987) is a gripping work of historical fiction set in West Virginia during the first two decades of the 20th century. It takes as its subject the rapacious conquest by coal mining companies of southern West Virginia and the courageous battles waged by miners and their families in defense of their land, their labor and their lives. The novel culminates with the Battle of Blair Mountain, which took place in the late summer of 1921.

Typically in historical fiction, invented characters encounter historical figures, invented places are juxtaposed with actual places and the fictional plot incorporates historical events. In storming heavenGiardina has carefully integrated her characters and the fictitious Justice County, West Virginia, into the landscape and history of the Coal Wars.

storming heaven (1987)

Giardina uses four narrators to tell her story, each with an effectively distinctive voice. CJ Marcum (“Cincinnatus Jefferson, after the two greatest men that ever lived”) becomes the mayor of the fictional town of Annadel, West Virginia. Annadel is a racially integrated community whose previous major was the African-American Doctor Booker. Doc Booker is a socialist who befriends CJ and wins him to the ideas of socialism, though CJ always falls asleep when he tries to read the books by Karl Marx that Doc lends him.

Rondal Lloyd, a dour, solitary man is nevertheless a thoroughly dedicated union organizer. In fact, he has given up on his thoughts of becoming a doctor in order to organize the mines. Rondal’s life at once reminds a reader of the countless intelligent and promising humans whose dreams are swallowed up by a difficult working class life and of those courageous workers who fight for justice and dignity on behalf of others.

Rosa Angelelli, a Sicilian immigrant brought to West Virginia by her husband Mario, voices a number of short sections in the novel. Desperately homesick, she works as a housekeeper for a wealthy mine operator whose butterfly collection both intrigues and troubles her. Rosa suffers tremendous loss because of the mine, and her fate de ella as depicted by Giardina is genuinely heartbreaking.

Carrie Bishop, whose home is in Kentucky, is a bold and free-thinking girl who as a woman becomes a nurse in a mining town, and she comes to dominate the novel with her compelling voice and story. Hopelessly in love with Rondal Lloyd, and appalled at what she sees of the miners’ conditions, she joins the dangerous, clandestine struggle to bring the United Mine Workers to Justice County. Carrie’s brother Miles, however, has become a representative of “the operators,” which confronts Carrie with conflicting loyalties and hard decisions.

Other notable characters in the novel include Talcott Lloyd, Rondal’s younger brother, who has fought in the Great War and become desensitized to violence, and Isom Justice, scion to Annadel’s wealthiest citizen, is an especially intriguing creation of Giardina’s. Not a miner himself, Isom however participates in the miners’ cause as a kind of adventure and comes to represent a certain type of middle class activist, individualistic and lacking in political principle and discipline. Albion Freeman, who loves and marries Carrie, is a gentle Hardshell Baptist preacher who does not believe in hell.

storming heaven is also peopled by the multi-ethnic miners, the blacks, Italians, Irish, Hungarians and Poles who live in their own impoverished enclaves and look askance at each other until the union movement brings them together, enlightening many of them. Finally, there are the “gun thugs,” the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency goons brought in by the operators to put down the miners’ attempts to organize. True to history, the Baldwin-Felts men in the novel beat, torture and murder suspected organizers. At one point a socialist organizer is thrown into an oven.

Giardina’s narrators, with the exception of Rosa, are highly reliable, Carrie, Rondal and CJ each being particularly clear-eyed, honest and self-aware. While the novel might sacrifice something in the way of ironic complexity with such narrators, it gains more. The three speak straight and plain, and Giardina speaking through them allows no trace of sentimentality into these hard lives. Love is unpredictable, stubborn and inconvenient as well as beautiful. Fear and spite are given their due, and the thirst for justice is a burning, immediate need.

Logan County Sheriff’s deputies during the battle of Blair Mountain

Giardina also has a keen eye for observation and an excellent writer’s touch. Here is a passage from Carrie, describing Justice town where she goes to nursing school:

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