January 14, 2016

Coal River - Ellen Marie Wiseman

Kensington Publishing, November 24, 2015.

Three Stars

In Coal River, Pennsylvania in the early 1900s, life was bleak for coal miners and their families. Thrown into this world is nineteen year old Emma Malloy, an orphan from New York City. Owning nothing more than a small suitcase of donated clothing and a train ticket to Coal River, Emma has no choice but to live with her aunt and uncle and cousin Percy. She has history in the small mining town – as a child, her parents dropped off her and her brother Albert there, and the visit ended in tragedy. Provoked by a series of events that were set in motion years before, Albert ran out onto the frozen river and drowned. Now Emma has returned, and she must face her memories alone.

In the anthracite mining region of Pennsylvania, workers at many mines are making attempts to unionize. In some cases, they are aided by a group known as the Molly Maguires – men who use violence against their employers to get what they want. In Coal River, the miners are attempting to organize peacefully, but they are continually pushed down by the Flint family, owners of the mine. They are forced to purchase supplies at inflated prices at the company store, to the point that their expenses are higher than their paychecks. To compensate, the miners’ children are sent to work in the mines as “breaker boys” at increasingly younger ages, some as young as six years old. The job is dangerous, with many losing limbs, if not their lives.

Emma sees this situation, and does what she can to help. Her cousin Percy runs the company store, so she begins to alter the records and steal food to help the local families. While her compassion and determination are commendable, she ends up causing more trouble for the families, drawing the attention of mine owner Hazard Flint and his lackeys. Things quickly slip into melodrama, with masked men holding Emma’s family at gunpoint. Emma’s adventures become increasingly hard to believe, as a teenage girl singlehandedly attempts to end child labour in Coal River.

While the story becomes more unbelievable, especially the “love conquers all” ending, it was the love of the mothers for their “breaker boy” sons that evoked an emotional response for me. Emma’s love story was a little too convenient, with a neatly wrapped up ending, but the love amongst the miners’ families was raw and real. There was a lack of depth to many of the main characters, but the story was worth the read for the gritty, realistic historical setting.

I received this novel from Goodreads First Reads and Kensington Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

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