REDEMPTION MOUNTAIN by Gerry FitzGerald

Book Quote:

There’s a lot of heartache in these mountains, that’s what my grandma Alice always says.

Book Review:

Review by Jana L. Perskie (MAR 12, 2014)

The setting for Redemption Mountain is located in Red Bone, West Virginia, in the Appalachian region of the Southern United States. Ranked by median income, it is the poorest state in the union except for Mississippi. The major resource in West Virginia’s economy is coal and the state is a top coal-producer in this country, second only to Wyoming.

From the beginning, in 1863, the state of West Virginia mined coal. While it has been blessed with a vast assortment of natural resources, coal is found in 53 of 55 counties, it is a mixed blessing. The downside of this blessing is about the the environment, the land, the people who mine it, and the unfortunate miners’ families who watch their loved ones leave for work never to see them again.

Why the statistics? This novel’s storyline, is based on the poverty of West Virginia miners and state residents as related to coal mining. West Virginia has been treated like a colony by big business. Mining disasters have rocked the state many times over. The controversial practice of Mountain Top Removal or Strip Mining plagues West Virginia, ripping off the tops of mountains to uncover the buried coal seams, leaving behind worthless acres of land. Advocates of mountaintop removal point out that once the areas are reclaimed, the technique provides premium flat land suitable for many uses in an extremely mountainous region. They also maintain that the new growth on reclaimed mountaintop mined areas is better able to support populations of game animals. And, of course, mining coal provides jobs. On the other hand, critics contend that mountaintop removal is a disastrous practice that benefits a small number of corporations at the expense of local communities and the environment.

Natty Oakes, a woman in her late twenties, lives in Redbone, McDowell County, West Virginia. Her grandfather, her mother and her uncle live on their farm at the top of Oak’s Hollow on “Redemption Mountain.” Natty is the mother of two children, 12-year-old Boyd, “The Pie Man,” who was born with Down Syndrome, and his younger sister Cat. Natty is married to Buck Oakes, a former high school football hero who got her pregnant in their senior year, a pregnancy which resulted in marriage and the birth of “The Pie Man.” Buck, perpetually unemployed for lack of jobs, is an angry, abusive man who takes out his failures in life on those around him, especially his wife, who works, (sometimes for no fee), as a home health aide to retired miners. She also runs the children’s library and coaches the local soccer team.

Charlie Burden, an attractive man in his late 40′s, is a partner in a New York City engineering firm, Dietrich Delahunt & Mackey, that has designed and is supervising the construction of a gigantic state-of-the art, clean coal-burning electricity generating plant in McDowell County, West Virginia. Charlie lives in a posh Westchester community, (think Bill & Hillary Clinton), with his wife Ellen, who spends much of her time involved in the activities of their country club. The couple have a son, a successful stockbroker, and a daughter who is attending university. The marriage is strained, primarily because Charlie and Ellen have developed different values over the years. She wants to move into a larger, 5 bedroom, pricier property even though the children are gone from home. Charlie is tired of his work with the firm. He resigns from the country club, it no longer suits him to spend time there. He longs to return to the field and do some hands-on engineering. “Why does my job get more and more boring and my career feel so unfulfilling as I get wealthier and more successful?” When the opportunity presents itself, Charlie grabs it…although it is not the job in China, supervising a huge construction project, that he wants. He thinks that if he takes on the generating plant project in West Virginia and is successful, he will eventually be assigned to China where Ellen has refused to go, nor does she plan to visit him in West Virginia.

Burden is uncomfortable after spending a night in the sterile company-owned condo in Bluefield, WV, just outside of Red Bone. When he decides to move to the town he has the opportunity to acquaint himself with the Red Bone locals. He meets Natty and her son “Pie Man,” his first friend. Natty is a runner like him and coach of “The Bones,” an under-14 soccer team. His next door neighbor is Pullman (Hank) Hankinson, a retired teacher and the man who plays cribbage with him. Hank also educates Charlie in the ways of Corporate America and how it has effected West Virginia. “The big companies come here, they make a deal in Charleston, and they take the coal, the timber and the gas, and they get rich. And the people get poorer and the land gets tore up, and the water gets fouled, and it’s OK, ’cause there ain’t hardly anybody left in the coal counties, and besides, they’re all just old and poor and uneducated and don’t matter to no one.”

Charlie finds himself happier and, oddly, more at home here than he is back in New York. His decision to leave the Bluefield condo for the tiny apartment in Red Bone impacts many lives, including his own.

This is a novel of the turmoil Big Business can bring as various elements opposed to Burden and his mentor, senior partner Lucien Mackey, try to take over the firm. It is a novel of political corruption and powerful Charleston law firms run by bogus “good ole boys” who know how to make things happen – like obtaining a permit for a mountaintop removal coal mine to fuel the new electrical plant and buying farms of local residents who are in the way of “progress.” And it is a novel of poor but resilient people, good people, whose lives can be shattered in an instant if Big Business has its way.

I am fascinated by the historical aspects of Redemption Mountain. The sad story of the Appalachian miners, their families, the environment, dirty politicians and Big Business is, unfortunately, a black mark on our country’s past and present.

Apart from the seriousness of greed and Corporate America in this poorest of regions in the United States, Redemption Mountain has its moments of humor and humanity. The characters, who make their homes in Red Bone, are extremely likable, just as the characters from Corporate America are detestable. This simplicity in character development is a weakness in the novel. There are the “good guys,” and the “bad guys,” with few shades of gray. The storyline is somewhat predictable…although there are a few big surprises….surprises which make the novel more complex and interesting.

Overall, I enjoyed Redemption Mountain and find it to be a good and interesting read. I learned a lot about coal mining, Strip Mining, and how destructive it can be to the land and the people who dwell there.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 41 readers
PUBLISHER: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (June 25, 2013)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Gerry FitzGerald
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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March 12, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Debut Novel, Facing History, Theme driven, US South

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