I have long been a fan of author Ellen Marie Wiseman and COAL RIVER was the only book of hers that I had not read. Once again, she didn’t disappoint. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.
This is historical fiction centered around the deplorable working conditions in the mining industry before widespread unionization. Wiseman creates a fictitious mining town in Pennsylvania to tell a disturbing but true story of unsafe equipment, child laborers, frequent accidents, sub-standard housing, overpriced company stores, and greedy owners.
Into this setting, Wiseman places the story’s protagonist, Emma Malloy, an orphan, transplanted from New York City after the tragic death of her parents. With no money and no where to go, Emma comes to Coal River, to live with relatives who see her primarily as free household help. But as Emma learns more and more about management abuses at the local mine and gets to know both miners and their families, she becomes determined to do something to improve the lives of workers, especially the children. It’s not without risk since her uncle is one the mine’s supervisors.
It’s a story full of action, suffering, violence, and building suspense and that intensity is hard to read at times. And I learned a lot about why the United States had to enact child labor laws. But I did have a issue with the “big reveal” at the end of the book for two reasons. First, it felt WAY too convenient. And second, there’s a clue presented early in the narrative that allowed me to figure out what that reveal was going to be.
Nevertheless, a highly recommended book, especially for those who know little about the country’s coal mining industry in its early days.
More about the author, Ellen Marie Wiseman.
You may be interested in my reviews of other historical novels by Wiseman: