A Review of James Still’s River of Earth
(New York: Viking Press, 1940)
In James Still’s dark novel of the coal mining community on Little Carr Mountain, the bleak existence of those who made their lives there was obvious. Although the Brackstone family managed to avoid living in the mining camp a good share of their lives, they were forced to eventually move there when life on their small acreage became too difficult. Mother tried her best to keep a garden for the family of six, but between moles, grasshoppers, hungry birds, and drought, it wasn’t easy. In order to keep Mother on the farm and out of the mining camp she detested, Father walked the two miles there and back as long as he could, until it took such a toll on him, they were forced to move into Blackjack camp.
Although this story is one of hardship and poverty, the rich dialect of the Appalachian mountain folk makes the reading experience interesting and fun. Deciphering the conversations is somewhat of a challenge, but adds to the enjoyment of the novel. Eccentric characters come in and out of the family’s lives often providing entertainment, like Uncle Jolly, who provides humor on his surprise visits. Between his incarcerations at the county jail and state prison, he comes around just enough to delight the children with his wild tales of adventure, most of which include out-running the law at every turn. In spite of his attraction to trouble and breaking the law, he has a warm heart and is a loyal son to his mother, who still lives alone on her farm. When not in jail, he takes care of Grandma Middleton and helps run her place. Nasty cousins, Harl and Tibb Logan, force themselves on the family from time to time, frightening the children and infuriating Mother, but Father can’t turn away kinfolk, no matter how dark and dismal they are.
The theme of living off the land with an abundance of nature-filled descriptions made this story endearing to me. The deeply detailed struggles and thrills of making the most of what their rugged soil could produce, and the meager few chickens, cows, and wild animals they survived off of was fascinating. Any story line that includes history, farming, nature and family reels me in and puts the decadence of modern life into full relief. Yes, oftentimes harsh, the issues that plagued our ancestors weren’t for the faint of heart, but the pristine lakes, rivers, and streams were the trade-off. Imagine a clean planet, where carcinogens and toxins weren’t destroying the air and soil. Imagine growing food in soil so pure that every nutrient possible could be absorbed naturally. Some would, of course, argue that “progress” has allowed for a much better way of life, but I would argue that ease, comfort, and greed are hardly sustaining qualities. As a result, I love disappearing into a world where the outdoors is as natural and beautiful as it once was, if even for a few short hours.
Ironically, the contrast between the pristine environment and the discovery of one of the worst eventual human polluters, coal, is interesting to me. I’m certain that not everyone would agree, and I’m quite sure the author had no intention of making such a contrast when writing the story of coal miners and their families in the late 1800’s. But these are things that jump out at me whenever I read these old, seldom read novels. There is much we can learn from them.