River of Earth, by James Still
Review by John Carbonara
River of Earth, A Novel, authored by James Still, was copyrighted in 1940, but the edition reviewed was copyrighted in 1978 by the University Press of Kentucky. As a son of a first generation immigrant family, the reviewer believed that he had some knowledge of lean times and what it meant to go without. He was seriously mistaken.
It might seem more appropriate to review the excellence of the prose, the wonderful use of color, the development of the characters from the first to the last page, but the reviewer does not believe that that was what Mr. Still wanted us to understand. And, other reviewers have dealt with these aspects better than this reviewer could ( for example, see Time review). One comment about the writing seems appropriate: The work is filled with the jargon of the times and these lexical items are not always easy to interpret.
Of more import is the life told. During one of the frequent periods in which the father was laid-off from his work in the mines, husband and wife had one of their recurring discussions. It was neither a fight nor an argument, it was a conflict of ideologies. The husband feels obliged to feed his kin who have come to him out of their own desperation . The wife cannot see beyond her own children. He thinks that perhaps he can get some food on credit from the company story. She responds:
“Her voice was like ice.”… “They won’t let you have it on credit. You’ve tried before. We’ve got to live small. We’ve got to start over again, hand to mouth, the way we began.” (p. 8):
And so the novel defines itself in the first few pages. This is not a story of a family, so much as it is a narrative of the times. The backdrop is the strip mines in Eastern Kentucky. When the mines were running, life was different. It was not good , it was simply different. When the mines were running there was plenty of money and plenty of food., but, inevitably, a six day week became four and then two or three half days and then the lay-off.
The first part, when the mines were going full tilt, may seem the up-side of life for the miners and their families, but it wasn’t. To pay for the food and other “luxuries” upon which they spent their money, they had to live in a “coal town.” They had to live with slag heaps, dirty, soot-ed air, the lack of a tree or a flower or patch of meadow. They did not see a bird or hear its song, Dad and the boys did not wander afield for squirrel or possum or fish the local un-fishable streams. They had to endure the chaos of the “boom” times, the fear of mine accidents and the uncertainty of what the boss-man would have to say tomorrow. It was a dirty, worrisome, unhealthy and ugly life.
When the mines shut down, as they frequently did, what was one to do? They knew the mines would start again and then the “money times” would return, but in the interim they still had to find a way to survive. Thus, we have the other half of the life of a mine worker’s family. The only option was to rent a small piece of land with a shack on it. There the family could scratch out crops for family use. There one could endure poverty in the midst of the beauty of the countryside. One could breathe fresh, clean air. One could have some fresh fruits and vegetables. One could see the sun come up (not often possible in the strip mines). Birds and squirrels sang and chattered. It was an idyllic life save for the fact that there was never enough food to feed the family and their omnipresent kin. Mother became too emaciated to produce milk for the newest baby.
Thus, this is a narrative of the two prime dimensions of a miner’s life: Life was dominated by hunger, impermanence, uncertainty and anxiety. They shuttled back and forth from impoverished rural holding to coal dust company house, and, neither life was worth living. The husband had no choice but to go when the mine’s called, the wife had no choice but to argue that life is better for her children in the country. The conflict was ideological and irreconcilable. Prudential values collided with aesthetic alternatives and prudence always won.
There is no story here. Don’t look for any romance, they simply did not have time for it. This was life one step above “life in extremis.” The novel begins in mid-stream and ends in mid stream, but, for all that, it is an important piece of literature. The novel portrays a life and people so different from most of our experiences that we are often unable to connect in an emotional or intellectual way. The reviewer could not put the book down for fear that the he could not again enter into the world of the Baldridge family. To become an inside observer, if not a ghost-like participant in a novel, is what reading novels is about. To remain outside the story is an indication that the work is not well written, or, that it has devolved into just a piece of history. In some way one has to fear the “boss man’s words,” has to feel the anguish of searching through the salt of the “meat box” only to find a small string of some unidentifiable animal remain and nothing else. (The husband notes that it is too small for them to eat and advises his wife to make a bit of broth with it and give it to the baby.) This is a work in which one cannot simply jump in and out of at will. Hunger, uncertainty and the fight against despair must become a part of the reader.
James Still has done his work well. It is difficult to say how important this novel is in the history of American literature, but it is easy to say that it is a slice of American life of which no thoughtful reader of American literature would want to be ignorant.