Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny: Book Review: "The Coal King's Slaves"

Is this where I put in key words such as sex, lesbians, vampires, Christopher Lloyd and others things to which this blog do not pertain, but by putting them here, I may get hits from all the Christoper Lloyd lesbian vampire fans (and you know who you are)? This is the primarily humorous and occasionally rambling writings of Leon Tchaikovsky, humor writer. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Book Review: "The Coal King's Slaves"

Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny

William G. Williams, former Communications Director to Speaker Matt Ryan, has found success as a book author. His historical novel "The Coal King’s Slaves" takes readers into the Scranton coal mines of a century ago. Steeped in strong research, readers learn what it felt like to be a miner, what it was to go deep into the ground for grueling work, and how it felt to live the life of a miner. It is a fascinating book that brings forth emotions while remaining grounded in hard facts that have been expertly researched. Readers walk away with expanded knowledge of the events and issues facing miners of past years while reading expertly constructed storylines.

The story is gripping. Glyn Jones, a miner living in Scranton, finds his son trapped when a mine’s roof collapses and must bring himself to amputate his son’s hand in order to free him. He saves his son’s life from a successive collapse, yet his son faces a dreary life as a worker with limited abilities. As we follow the lives of the Jones family from that point on, we learn the struggles that mining families faced.

This book brings vivid images of life as coal miners. The insensitivity of mine bosses is shown, as when they were upset at accidents not for the sake of those injured or their families yet because of production delays. Further lack of feeling is shown when mine owners would pay for the removal of dead mules in mines, yet families would have to pay to bring up the bodies of their dead relatives.

Boys were called "redtops", we read, as they would work sorting coal from other rocks. In doing so, their fingers would become bloody. When they ran their hands through their hair, the nickname arose.

Some interesting legislative history is brought to life. In 1885, the Pennsylvania legislature prohibited boys under 14 from working below ground and boys under 12 working above ground in mine employment. There was little effort on the part of government, mines, and even families to follow these laws. A few years later, the Pennsylvania legislature debated and passed a mine safety law providing for proper ventilation and inspections, yet a Scranton-area State Senator exempted hard coal from the bill. This law thus applied only to soft coal in Schuylkill County. This same Senator, though, changed his position following a tragic mine disaster which led him to fight for mine safety. A new law required all mines to have at least two openings.

A main reason why mine owners were insensitive to their employees was because the railroad companies owned most of the mines. Laws passed by the Pennsylvania legislature in 1868 allowed rail companies to control the transportation of coal. Railroad companies gobbled up the rights to coal mines and refused to transport coal of competitors. The owners of railroads were generally not sympathetic to the plight of miners.

While the legislature debated, miners suffered and they reacted. 61,000 miners died nationwide at work from 1838 through 1914. Growing labor unrest was met with company-supported civilian corps that put down unrest and killed some miners. While 28 civilian corps members were charged with first degree murder, they were all found not guilty in one half hour of jury deliberations. Strikers were beaten by private detectives and by hired attackers. Mine union members were barred from employment. Vigilantes struck back. Mine executives and public officials were assassinated. Some arrested for these murders were believed to have had nothing to do with the killings, yet convictions were delivered from juries that denied allowing any miners or any pro-miner Irish Catholics from serving as jurors. Miners marched, and Sheriffs and deputized Sheriffs opened fire and killed 19 miners.

A century ago Scranton was a city with much tension, death, and struggle. This novel brings that Scranton of yesteryear alive. This book about working underground is a rare gem.


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